01/12/2012 08:24 EST | Updated 03/13/2012 05:12 EDT

TSX to open higher following strong bond auctions in Italy, Spain

TORONTO - The Toronto stock market eked out a small gain Thursday as investors balanced disappointment in two U.S. economic reports with the positive influence of successful bond auctions by Italy and Spain.

The S&P/TSX composite index rose 13.38 points to 12,274.32 while the TSX Venture Exchange was ahead 9.38 points to 1,540.5.

The Canadian dollar rose 0.09 of a cent to 98.2 cents US.

The Dow industrials rose 21.57 points to 12,471.02 as U.S. retail sales rose by only 0.1 per cent in December against expectations for a 0.2 per cent rise. And during the most important month of the year for retailers, the strength last month was led by a 1.5 per cent jump in auto sales.

Also, applications for weekly unemployment benefits spiked by 24,000 to 399,000 last week, largely because companies let go thousands of workers after the holiday season.

The Nasdaq was ahead 13.94 points to 2,724.7, while the S&P 500 index added 3.02 points to 1,295.5.

The negative data came after a string of recent news that reassured investors that the economic recovery continues and that the United States should be able to avoid slipping back into recession.

Those reports showed faster than expected expansion in the manufacturing sector and employment growth last month exceeding expectations. Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve chimed in Wednesday, saying all but one of its 12 banking districts experienced some growth from late November through the end of the year.

"It's not bad, it's not explosive but you wouldn't expect an explosive economic recovery coming out of the U.S. after a banking and housing crash," said Chris King, portfolio manager at Morgan, Meighen and Associates.

"It takes a while before all the credit channels are able to start to be deployed again and you're starting to see that again, you're starting to see a little bit of a glimmer of positive things in the banking sector in the U.S."

King was also optimistic about the U.S. housing sector showing some real improvement this year.

"Housing starts will get a bit better, you start to see inventory declining, starting to see more glimmer of interest and prices have probably stabilized."

There was relief on financial markets as Italy saw its borrowing costs drop sharply while easily selling €12 billion in bonds in its first test of market sentiment of the new year.

And Spain successfully raised nearly €10 billion in debt auctions Thursday in a sign of investor confidence in the new conservative government's attempts to get a grips on the country's debt.

The solid showing from both bond auctions comes after the European Central Bank late last month offered to lend US$641 billion to 523 euro-area banks in a massive three-year funding operation.

And analysts said the auction signalled that instead of just stashing the money with the ECB, that banks were actually putting the money to work.

Meanwhile, the European Central Bank said it was leaving its key interest rate unchanged at one per cent following two consecutive rate cuts.

ECB President Mario Draghi Draghi later told a news conference that recent economic indicators had shown "tentative signs of stabilization of activity at low levels."

The base metals sector was the strongest advancer, up 1.6 per cent as metal prices also ran up sharply with March copper up 10 cents to US$3.66 a pound. Copper has surged about five per cent this week on trade data from China that suggested authorities could be ready to ease lending requirements to encourage growth.

The metal, considered a global economic bellwether because it is used in so many businesses, also got lift from solid revenue figures and a positive outlook from resource giant Alcoa Inc.

Teck Resources (TSX:TCK.B) gained 63 cents to C$39.98 .

The energy sector lost one per cent as oil lost early gains and the February crude contract in New York closed down $1.77 at US$99.10 a barrel after earlier running as high as US$102.98.

The about-face followed a report from Bloomberg News that a European Union embargo on imports of Iranian oil would probably be delayed for six months to allow countries such as Greece, Italy and Spain to find alternative supplies.

Cenovus Energy (TSX:CVE) gave back 33 cents to C$34.05 and while gas giant EnCana (TSX:ECA) lost 41 cents to $18.20.

The gold sector was up about 0.7 per cent as bullion prices rose for a third day with the February contract up $8.10 to US$1,647.70 an ounce. Goldcorp Inc. (TSX:G) was up 68 cents to C$46.78.

Tech stocks were supportive as Research In Motion Ltd. (TSX:RIM) ran ahead 88 cents to $16.80 while MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates (TSX:MDA) rose 55 cents to $47.09.

Rio Tinto Alcan (NYSE:RIO) has renewed and expanded an IT infrastructure services contract with CGI Group Inc. (TSX:GIB.A) for three years in an agreement valued at $60 million. CGI shares dipped 34 cents to $18.37.

In other corporate news, Shaw Communications Inc. (TSX:SJR.B) said first-quarter profits rose to $202 million or 43 cents a share. Revenues grew 19 per cent, helped by higher prices in its cable division. It also announced later that the company's dividend will be increased but Shaw's stock lost 28 cents to $20.20.

Connacher Oil and Gas Ltd. (TSX:CLL) said chief executive officer Richard Gusella is leaving the company barely a week after a big shakeup in its executive offices. Gusella had taken on the additional responsibilities last week of president and interim chief operating officer, filling the roles after two executives departed. Its shares added nine cents to $1.02.