European shares hit by Fed hint of stimulus cut

Thu Feb 21, 2013 9:11am GMT

* FTSEurofirst 300 down 1.2 percent

* Fed hints at scaling back asset purchases

* Miners recoil on worries over growth

* Financials fall; insurers knocked by mixed results

By David Brett

LONDON, Feb 21 (Reuters) - European markets opened lower on Thursday after U.S. Federal Reserve minutes suggested the central bank may stop printing the money that has helped to drive the recent rally in equities sooner than expected.

Minutes of the latest Fed policy meeting published late on Wednesday showed a number of officials think the central bank might have to slow or stop buying bonds before seeing the pickup in hiring the programme is designed to deliver.

"The more important part of the minutes is the focus of excessive risk-taking and the potential for instability. There have been several members of the Fed talking about creating a froth in risky assets (the derivative cost of the easy monetary policy)," Steen Jakobsen, chief economist at Saxo Bank, said.

"That froth in the risky assets has probably been fuelled to a large extent by the central banks, but to say it is totally overdone and a replay of 2008 is an exaggeration," he said.

By 0836 GMT, the FTSEurofirst 300 was down 13.76 points, or 1.2 percent, at 1,154.96, led lower by markets in southern Europe which had enjoyed the most gains since support from central banks was announced in the second half of 2012.

The euro zone blue chip index shed 1.3 percent, failing to break technical resistance at 2,670, corresponding to its 50-day average. This was a sign buying momentum remained weak and the index may remain stuck in the 2,590-2,670 range where it has been trapped for the past two weeks.

At the sector level miners were the worst performers, down 2.3 percent.

Basic resource stocks littered the top fallers list as the threat of stimulus being taken away hurt their already precarious growth outlook and underlying commodity prices.

Global miner BHP Billiton extended the previous session's losses, down 2.7 percent, as investment banks began to downgrade their estimates for the company the day after BHP posted heavy losses.

Commodity-related assets also continue to be dogged by unconfirmed rumours of a struggling hedge fund ditching assets.

Financials , which have been at forefront of recent gains, were weaker too as investors targeted profit- taking in some of those potentially-bloated riskier assets.

Europe's No. 2 insurer, AXA, shed 2.6 percent after reporting a 4 percent fall in 2012 earnings.

Reinsurer Swiss Re, however, rallied 2.8 percent after posting full-year 2012 earnings ahead of estimates.

And if a firm's results are not good then it can always sweeten investors with the promise of cash returns.

Defence firm BAE Systems, which posted a 6 percent slump in 2012 profit, rose 4.2 percent after announcing a three-year share repurchase programme of up to 1 billion pounds and increased its 2012 dividend.

With the European earnings season approaching the halfway mark, 39 percent of the STOXX Europe 600 companies that have reported so far miss consensus estimates, StarMine data showed

"Equity investors have looked past weak company fundamental growth, instead discounting optimistic forward expectations. This leaves the equity market in a precarious position," Barclays said in a note.

"If growth slows, then Fed fears will ease, but earnings growth will not accelerate as expected. If growth proves resilient and inflation risks increase, then pressure will rise on the Fed to taper purchases," it said.

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