* TSX down 0.05 percent at 12,037.73
* Index posts fourth straight quarterly gain
* Financial sector leads index lower
* Energy up on firmer oil, Athabasca IPO (Adds details, quotes)
By Claire Sibonney
TORONTO, March 31 (Reuters) - Toronto’s main stock index ended little changed on Wednesday as weak banking shares offset stronger resource issues, limiting its gains for the month and latest quarter.
The financial sector declined 0.3 percent, as data showing that U.S. private employers unexpectedly shed jobs in March dampened hopes about the strength of the economic recovery. [ID:nN31218176]
“A lot of the rebound in stock prices, and especially in the financial sector, has been predicated on a rapidly improving North American economy and the (U.S.) jobs numbers, being on the softer side, they’re making investors a little bit cautious,” said Elvis Picardo, an analyst and strategist at Global Securities in Vancouver.
“For the past three weeks, basically, the market said we’re not sure exactly where we’re going to go next and we need to see more supportive data from, not just the market, but also from the global economy to convince us that in fact this market should go higher,” said Gareth Watson, Canadian equity adviser at ScotiaMcLeod.
The Toronto Stock Exchange’s S&P/TSX composite index .GSPTSE ended down 6.48 points, or 0.05 percent, at 12,037.73. The index bounced between gains and losses throughout the day after opening a touch higher.
The TSX ended the month up 3.5 percent and rose 2.5 percent for the quarter, its fourth-straight quarterly gain.
Other data on Wednesday showed the Canadian economy grew at a sizzling pace January, building the case for the central bank to raise lending rates soon, but Picardo said that has already largely factored into the market. [ID:nN31248585]
“The market’s taken that as a given,” he said.
Higher rates are typically negative for stocks because they slow economic growth and increase borrowing costs for companies.
The energy sector was up 0.6 percent, helped by firmer oil prices. [O/R] Suncor Energy Inc, Canada’s biggest oil company, added 0.4 percent to C$33.03, while Canadian Natural Resources (CNQ.TO) gained 1.9 percent to C$75.17.
As well, Athabasca Oil Sands Corp said late Tuesday it would raise at least C$1.35 billion ($1.32 billion) in an initial public offering, a sign investor interest in oil sands assets has rebounded. [ID:nN30177984]
Materials stocks were up 0.4 percent, helped by a rally in gold prices. [GOL/] Barrick Gold Corp (ABX.TO), the world’s largest gold producer, shot up 1.1 percent to C$38.97, while Goldcorp Inc (G.TO) rose 1.2 percent to C$37.95.
Investors were also watching Research In Motion RIM.TO, which tumbled in extended U.S. trade after the BlackBerry maker posted fourth-quarter results that lagged expectations. [ID:nN31237883]
RIM shares closed 1.32 percent lower at C$75.25 in Toronto before the company released its results.
“RIM is not just a Canadian technology giant, it’s also one of the tech bellwethers ... that will really set the trend at least for tech stocks for the next little while,” Picardo said.
Apart from U.S. nonfarm payrolls figures for March due on Good Friday, when North American markets will be closed, investors are also awaiting the start of first-quarter earnings season.
“It’s not until we start getting into Q1 reporting season, which is literally around the corner in a couple weeks, that you might start to see things pick up,” Watson said.
$1=$1.02 Canadian Reporting by Claire Sibonney; editing by Peter Galloway