TORONTO - The Toronto stock market closed slightly higher at the end of a volatile session as worries about the prospect of a U.S.-led military strike on Syria inflicted losses on most sectors.
The S&P/TSX composite index closed up 16.01 points at 12,607.22 on Wednesday as gold and base metal stocks lost early gains amid falling metal prices.
The market found support from energy companies as investor jitters sent crude oil to its highest level in more than two years and record earnings from National Bank (TSX:NA).
"I don't think the international community is worried about Syria in itself — they're worried about the fallout in the area if things were to escalate further," said Gareth Watson, vice-president investment management and research at Richardson GMP.
National Bank, Canada's sixth-biggest bank, earned $419 million or $2.39 a diluted share, up from $353 million or $1.98 per share in the same 2012 period. Revenue rose five per cent to $1.29 billion. Ex-items, net income was a record $391 million or $2.22 per diluted share, 16 cents higher than analysts expected and its shares rose $1.89 to $81.14.
The Canadian dollar was lower as investors avoided riskier assets such as commodity based currencies and equities, falling 0.1 of a cent to 95.37 cents US.
U.S. markets fared better amid data showing the recovery in the U.S. housing sector remains on track despite higher mortgage rates.
The National Association of Realtors said its latest seasonally adjusted index for pending home sales declined 1.3 per cent to 109.5. That compared with a reading in May of 111.3, which was the highest since December 2006.
The Dow Jones industrials were ahead 48.38 points to 14,824.51, the Nasdaq climbed 14.83 points 3,593.35 and the S&P 500 index rose 4.48 points to 1,634.96.
Concerns about an attack grew after the United Nations’ special envoy to Syria said that evidence suggests that some kind of chemical "substance" was used in Syria that may have killed more than 1,000 people. But Lakhdar Brahimi added that any military strike in response must first gain UN Security Council approval.
The comments came as a UN inspection team was investigating an alleged poison gas attack near Damascus on Aug. 21.
The energy sector led advancers, up 1.5 per cent as oil ran up to its highest level in over two years on worries over supply disruptions despite data showing an unexpected climb in oil inventories last week.
"When you add it all up — the problems in Libya, Egypt, Syria — you’re looking at three million barrels a day in potential production outages," said Nick Koutsoftas, a commodities-focused portfolio manager at Cohen & Steers in New York.
The October contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange closed up $1.09 to US$110.10 a barrel, its highest close since May, 2011. Canadian Natural Resources (TSX:CNQ) was ahead $1.21 to C$32.95 and Cenovus Energy (TSX:CVE) was up 81 cents to $30.86.
The industrials sector was also positive, up per cent while transport giant Bombardier Inc. (TSX:BBD.B) has signed a preliminary agreement with a Russian state corporation for the purchase of as many as 100 Q400 NextGen aircraft in a deal that could be worth up to US$3.39 billion. The agreement includes 50 Q400 NextGen aircraft to be sold to Russian operators and the potential placement of at least another 50 in the region. Bombardier shares gained 12 cents to $4.69.
Technology stocks were also supportive with BlackBerry (TSX:BB) ahead 31 cents to $10.85 amid reports that Chinese technology company Lenovo will make a US$17 a share bid for the smartphone maker.
The gold sector led decliners, down about 2.5 per cent following a slide of four per cent Tuesday as gold prices slipped. The December bullion contract lost $1.40 to US$1,418.80 an ounce after sent prices surged $27 on Tuesday. Barrick Gold Corp. (TSX:ABX) faded 38 cents to C$20.26 while Iamgold (TSX:IMG) dropped 26 cents to $6.46.
Gold has also been in demand through its status as a haven in times of geopolitical uncertainty. Earlier in the session, it had hit a three-month high of US$1,434.
The metals and mining sector was down 0.6 per cent while the September copper contract was down three cents to US$3.30 a pound. First Quantum Minerals (TSX:FM) fell 48 cents to C$17.39.
In other corporate news, Capital Power (TSX: CPX) announced a deal to sell three New England power plants to Emera Inc. (TSX: EMA) in a US$541 million deal that will see it will wind down its commodity and energy trading business outside Alberta.
Capital Power shares gained 54 cents to $20.42 while Emera slipped 11 cents at $30.24.