By Shashwat Awasthi and Noor Zainab Hussain
(Reuters) - London's blue-chip index fell on Thursday after two successive days of gains, dragged down by exporters which were hurt by a stronger pound as investors positioned for a higher-spending budget next month under a new British finance minister.
The FTSE 100 <.FTSE> ended the session 1.1% lower, derailed by steep falls in heavyweights Barclays <BARC.L> and Centrica <CNA.L>, while a rise in new coronavirus cases in China jolted broader risk sentiment.
British utility Centrica skidded 15.3% after its 2019 profit slumped by more than a third, while Barclays slipped 1.7% as news Britain's financial regulators were probing historical links between the bank's chief executive officer and U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein overshadowed financial results.
The mid-cap FSTE 250 <.FTMC> lost 0.6%, tracking a broader risk-off sentiment as the Chinese province of Hubei, an epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak, reported a record rise in deaths and thousands of more cases.
The increase in numbers, which came after China introduced a new diagnostic procedure involving quicker computerised tomography (CT) scans to screen patients, dented hopes that the outbreak would soon plateau.
After the initial outbreak roiled global markets last month, investors have become more sensitive to the rate of escalation.
"China is the world’s largest importer of oil so the renewed fears about the health crisis have hit stocks like BP and Royal Dutch Shell," CMC Markets analyst David Madden said, adding that mining stocks such as BHP <BHPB.L>, Rio Tinto <RIO.L> and Anglo American <AAL.L> were hurt too.
"It has been a double whammy for the FTSE 100 as the drive higher in sterling has dented internationally focused stocks like GlaxoSmithKline <GSK.L> and AstraZeneca <AZN.L>, plus Unilever <ULVR.L>," he said.
The midcap index was also dragged down by British gambling firms William Hill <WMH.L>, GVC <GVC.L>, Playtech <PTEC.L> and 888 <888.L> following a media report that the gambling commission would consider putting limits on the amount consumers are allowed to bet online.
All sectors of the FTSE 100 ended lower, with oil majors Shell <RDSa.L> and BP <BP.L> among the major drags, followed by financials. The index substantially underperformed the broader European benchmark <.STOXX> as more of its components are exposed to commodity prices.
UAE-based NMC Health <NMC.L>, whose shares have swung sharply in recent sessions amid takeover chatter, tumbled 4.2% after analysts at SocGen slapped a double rating downgrade on the stock.
Coca Cola HBC <CCH.L> outperformed with a 3.6% gain after it, along with fellow bottler Coca-Cola European Partners <CCEPC.L>, reported a higher annual profit.
Small-cap drugmaker Indivior <INDV.L> fell more than 19% after it reported a fourth-quarter loss.
(Reporting by Shashwat Awasthi in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Shounak Dasgupta and Kirsten Donovan)