TSX steady as financials offset by volatile commodities

By John Tilak

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's main stock index was little changed on Friday, with gains in the financial sector offset by declines in energy and material shares after commodity prices had a volatile session.

Gold bullion showed little signs of stabilizing after a choppy week, with both the price of the precious metal and shares of gold producers hitting four-month lows.

The Toronto market hit a two-year high earlier in the day.

Investors also tracked a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that upheld Ontario's ban on pharmacies selling private-label prescription drugs, a move expected to hurt drugstore chains. Shares of Shoppers Drug Mart Corp turned negative after the news.

Recent comments by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen, the Fed vice chair who is the nominee to succeed Bernanke, have assuaged investor fears of an immediate pullback in the U.S. central bank's bond-buying program, which has sustained this year's strength in global equity markets.

Even so, some investors have started to urge caution about the run-up in stock prices.

It would be prudent for investors to build cash positions and sell stocks whose valuations might be stretched, said Lorne Steinberg, president of Lorne Steinberg Wealth Management, who pointed to the jump in shares of the Canadian financial companies as an example.

"It's going to be a lot tougher to make money in 2014," he said. "Valuations have risen much faster than revenues and earnings, which is not a long-term sustainable situation."

The Toronto Stock Exchange's S&P/TSX composite index <.GSPTSE> closed up 3.01 points, or 0.02 percent, at 13,478.34, after rising as high as 13,517.02, its highest level since mid-2011.

Despite rising more than 8 percent this year, the benchmark Canadian index is still trailing gains made by U.S. stock markets.

"Looking out to 2014, the Canadian stock market may still underperform other stock markets," Steinberg said. He expects volatile commodity prices to weigh.

Six of the 10 main sectors on the index were in the red on Friday.

Financials, the index's most heavily weighted sector, gained 0.2 percent, after having advanced almost 22 percent this year.

Manulife Financial Corp rose 1.3 percent, to C$20.37, and had the biggest positive influence on the index. Bank of Montreal added 0.5 percent to C$74.01.

Shares of energy producers slipped 0.2 percent, hurt by a drop in the price of U.S. crude oil. Canadian Natural Resources Ltd lost 1.3 percent to C$34.82.

Gold-mining stocks shed 1 percent, with Barrick Gold Corp giving back 3.3 percent to C$17.21 and Goldcorp Inc dropping 0.8 percent to C$24.31.

Two of the country's major drugstore chains dropped. Shoppers gave back 0.3 percent to C$58.92, and Jean Coutu fell 1 percent to C$18.24.

In other company news, Pretium Resources Inc shot up about 80 percent to C$5.53 after the company released some preliminary results from a sampling program at its gold project in northern British Columbia.

($1=$1.05 Canadian)

(Additional reporting by Allison Martell; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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