By Jon Hopkins
LONDON (Reuters) - The leading share index added 0.7 percent on Wednesday, buoyed by strength in commodity issues, supported by trade data from China, and in banks and insurers as Wall Street put in an early advance.
At the close, the FTSE 100 was 38.27 points higher at 5,640.57, a 20 month peak, at levels not seen since June 2008. The blue chip index remained over 60 percent above levels hit almost exactly a year ago when the market reached a trough.
"Wall Street came in with some early gains and stirred the FTSE from an earlier torpor late afternoon," said Mic Mills, senior trader at ETX Capital.
"But aside from strength in heavyweight commodity issues there really looks to be little underlying the advance and with new multi-month peaks being struck, investors might start to find the air getting a bit rarified at these levels," Mills added.
Miners saw the biggest demand as copper prices rose after data showed Chinese exports and imports grew faster than expected in February raised hopes for a global economic recovery.
Fresnillo (Fresnillo PLC ORD USD0.50), Xstrata (Xstrata PLC ORD USD0.50), Lonmin (Lonmin PLC ORD USD0.0001), Vedanta Resources (Vedanta Resources PLC ORD USD0), and Rio Tinto (RIO Tinto PLC ORD 10P) were among the best performers, ahead 1.8 to 3.2 percent.
Energy issues were higher supported by a rally in crude prices, which rose above $82 a barrel after a U.S. government oil inventory report showed an unexpected drop in gasoline stockpiles.
Royal Dutch Shell (Royal Dutch Shell PLC 'A' ORD), BG Group , BP (E:BP) and Cairn Energy (Cairn Energy PLC ORD 231/169P) gained 0.8 to 1.5 percent.
But oil explorer Tullow Oil (Tullow OIL PLC ORD 10P) missed out, losing 0.3 percent after it posted a 92 percent fall in 2009 net profit.
Banks were higher, with global heavyweight HSBC (Hsbc Holdings PLC ORD $0.50 (U) up 0.7 percent, while part-nationalised lenders Royal Bank of Scotland (Royal Bank of Scotland Group P) and Lloyds Banking Group (Lloyds Banking Group PLC ORD 1) gained 3.9 percent and 3.6 percent, respectively.
Standard Chartered (Standard Chartered PLC ORD USD) added 0.5 percent in spite of the stock trading ex-dividend on Wednesday.
Barclays (Barclays PLC ORD 25P) gained 0.6 percent. The bank was said to be looking to buy a retail bank in the United States to extend its presence after acquiring Lehman Brothers' North American operations in 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Among individual risers, inter-dealer broker ICAP (Icap PLC ORD 10P) jumped 4.5 percent higher excited by news its mid cap peer Tullett Prebon (Tullett Prebon PLC ORD 25P) was in preliminary offer talks.
Tullett shares surged 25.7 percent higher, topping the FTSE 250 index leader board with Australia's Macquarie and Bank of China mentioned as possible predators.
British Airways (British Airways PLC ORD 25P) gained 3.7 percent after it, American Airlines (AMR) and Spain's Iberia offered to cede a number of lucrative trans-Atlantic slots in a bid to gain EU antitrust immunity for their alliance.
U.S. blue chips were marginally higher by London's close, up 0.1 percent as a number of merger and acquisition deals offset an unexpected drop in January wholesale inventories.
British American Tobacco (British American Tobacco PLC O) was the biggest faller on the FTSE 100, down 3.1 percent as it traded ex-dividend. Admiral , Schroders (Schroders PLC VTG SHS £1), Serco Group (Serco Group PLC ORD 2P), Shire (Shire PLC ORD 5P), and TUI Travel all lost their dividend attractions too.
Defensively-perceived stocks were the main drag on the FTSE 100 index. Drugmakers AstraZeneca (Astrazeneca PLC ORD SHS $0.25) and GlaxoSmithKline (Glaxosmithkline PLC ORD 25P) both shed 0.1 percent.
Food retailers were weak, with Wm Morrison Supermarket (Morrison (WM) Supermarkets PLC) off 0.2 percent ahead of results due on Thursday. Peers Tesco (Tesco PLC ORD 5P) and Sainsbury (Sainsbury (J) PLC ORD 28 4/7P) both lost 0.3 percent.
General retailers were weak as well, with Marks & Spencer (Marks AND Spencer Group PLC OR) down 0.6 percent and Kingfisher (Kingfisher PLC ORD 15 5/7P) off 0.8 percent.
Sterling skidded to one-week lows against the dollar and euro on Wednesday after data showing an unexpected fall in British manufacturing hit a market already reeling from political and economic worries.
(Editing by Mike Nesbit)