LONDON  - Profit warnings from British companies jumped more than 70 percent in the final three months of 2011, the biggest quarterly rise for a decade, as markets were rocked by economic uncertainty, Ernst & Young said on Sunday.

Companies quoted on London's main list and junior AIM market issued 88 profit warnings in the final quarter, up from 51 in the third quarter, the accountancy firm said.

"As evidenced by the sharp jump in the number of warnings, 2011 was a tough year for many companies and this year is likely to continue in the same vein with the gap between the winners and losers widening," said Alan Hudson, head of Ernst & Young's UK restructuring practice.

"Many businesses are still expanding profitably, but others - the zombie companies - remain moribund by debt or defunct business models, unable to build value or gain momentum in these challenging economic conditions."

The hardest hit sector was retail, where an 8 percent fall in consumers' disposable income led to the worst Christmas since 2008 for many shop groups.

Retailers issued 39 profit warnings in 2011, more than in the whole of 2009 and 2010 combined, it said.

The pain has not eased in the early weeks of 2012, with clothing chain Peacocks calling in administrators, and Tesco issuing its first profit warning in living memory. Support services and software and computer services also suffered from weaker end markets, Ernst & Young said.

The leap in warnings could mark the start of an upward trend that could continue well into 2012, Hudson said, although he added that recent high-profile warnings had lowered profit expectations.