MILAN/LONDON European shares edged ahead on Wednesday, helped by good earning updates, but bank stocks hit a five-week low on growing concerns over the region's crowded election agenda this year.
The STOXX 600 rose 0.3 percent after a volatile session that saw the pan-European index dip into negative territory at one point, weighed down by financial stocks which are seen as most sensitive to political uncertainty.
At the forefront of investors' concerns is the French presidential election, with worries about the strong showing of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen keeping euro and French debt under pressure on Wednesday. [MKTS/GLOB]
"Pressure on financials is high," said Andrea Cuturi, chief investment officer at Anthilia Capital Partners in Milan. "Suddenly investors have waken up to the prospect that it will be a year of elections in Europe. Le Pen's speech on Sunday was enough to trigger a broad risk-off mood across the region."
Among banking stocks, France's Natixis (CNAT.PA) was the biggest loser, down 3.7 percent, while Germany's Deutsche Bank (DBKGn.DE) and Dutch lender ING (INGA.AS) were also among the top fallers in the sector. Elections are also scheduled in Germany and the Netherlands later this year.
In spite of the political jitters, a series of good earnings updates has supported the STOXX, which is flat so far this week. According to JP Morgan, more than half of the STOXX companies that have reported so far beat EPS estimates, with growth at 8 percent year-on-year.
There were more well-received earnings on Wednesday.
French construction and concession company Vinci (SGEF.PA) rose 4.7 8 percent after it hiked its dividend and forecast higher revenue for 2017 and more traffic on its French motorways.
"With most operating metrics in Q4 improving and guidance for further growth, we see momentum as positive for Vinci into 2017," said UBS analysts in a note.
"We believe the shares offer good value."
Spanish builder ACS (ACS.MC) rose 2.8 percent after its Australian unit Cimic (CIM.AX) said it expected a strong 2017 and posted an 11.5 percent rise in full-year profit.
Norwegian insurer Storebrand (STB.OL) rose 3.3 after reporting forecast-beating earnings and the first dividend in six years, while Danish wind turbine producer Vestas (VWS.CO) added 2 percent after a bigger than expected order intake.
Results at Danish shipping and oil group A.P. Moeller-Maersk (MAERSKb.CO) disappointed. Its shares fell 5 percent after it missed fourth-quarter profit forecasts and announced its chairman would step down.
British mid-cap Tullow Oil (TLW.L) dropped 5.4 percent after the Africa-focused oil exploration company said it was in the red for a third year running due to exploration write-offs.
(Reporting by Danilo Masoni; Editing by Tom Heneghan)