By Sara Sjolin, MarketWatch
LONDON (MarketWatch) — European stock markets were mostly lower Wednesday, with weaker-than-expected euro-zone consumer-confidence data beating the air out of a risk-on sentiment, while investors also stayed cautious ahead of minutes from the U.S. Federal Reserve.
The Stoxx Europe 600 index /zigman2/quotes/210599654/delayed XX:SXXP +0.46% fell 0.3% to close at 289.07, retreating after a 1.1% rally on Tuesday.
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“This week we have the Italian election over the weekend, and I think there’s 30%-40% chance of a market-unfriendly outcome. That would be bad for the euro and bad for Italian bonds. I think it would be very wise to keep risk low over the weekend,” said Nick Beecroft, senior market analyst at Saxo Capital Markets in London. See: Will Berlusconi win over Italians with Champions League glory?
Shares of Royal KPN NV /zigman2/quotes/200683801/delayed NL:KPN -0.26% slumped 9.7%, as the Dutch telecom firm said its largest shareholder, Mexico’s America Movil /zigman2/quotes/205846431/composite AMX +0.47% /zigman2/quotes/202167248/delayed MX:AMXA -2.55% , has agreed to back a planned capital increase of 4 billion euros ($5.37 billion).
Shares of Akzo Nobel NV /zigman2/quotes/209835399/delayed NL:AKZA +2.33% shaved off 5.3%. The Dutch paint and coatings firm said it had outlined new financial targets for 2015 after posting a net loss for the fourth quarter. See: Akzo Nobel sets new financial targets for 2015.
Shares of Swedish Match AB /zigman2/quotes/204812015/delayed SE:SWMA +1.06% slid 6.8%, after the company said operating profit from the snus and snuff business will be lower in 2013 compared with 2012 because of increased investments in the U.S. and competition in Sweden.
For the broader European stock market, investors took note of euro-zone consumer-confidence data for February showing a softer-than-expected improvement. The flash estimate rose to minus-23.6 from minus-23.9, but missed analysts’ expectations of a negative-23 reading.
Also grabbing attention, U.S. data showed construction of new homes falling 8.5% in January, although the release showed signs of longer-term growth. See: Housing starts slump as apartment building slows.
Meanwhile, the U.S.’s producer-price index rose a seasonally adjusted 0.2% last month, below analysts’ expectations. See: More expensive vegetables push up PPI.
U.S. stocks were lower on Wall Street. See: U.S. stocks flutter near five-year highs
Later in the day, attention turns to minutes from Federal Reserve policy meeting in January.
“The December minutes were surprising as they revealed that a majority of the [policy-making Federal Open Market Committee] wanted to scale back asset purchases this year and potentially end the purchase program before year-end,” analysts at Danske Bank said in a note. “The January minutes will therefore be scrutinized for new information about the timing of an exit.”
In the U.K., the FTSE 100 index /zigman2/quotes/210598409/delayed UK:UKX +0.20% jumped above the 6,400 level for the first time since January 2008, but closed 0.3% higher at 6,395.37, after members at the Bank of England appeared more willing to launch more quantitative easing. Minutes from the bank’s February policy meeting showed three out of nine members called for a 25 billion pound ($38.6 billion) increase in the asset-purchase program, up from just one member in January. See: Bank of England voted 6-3 to leave QE on hold.
“The U.K. market being higher is surely due to the minutes, because they were extremely dovish. You had three members voting for £25 billion more quantitative easing and they repeated the willingness to look through higher inflation for the next couple of years,” said Beecroft from Saxo Capital Markets. See: U.K. stocks rise after BOE report; BHP drops.
“That means there could be more cheap money driving markets,” he added.
Oil firms were higher, even as oil prices slumped. Shares of BP PLC /zigman2/quotes/207305210/composite BP +0.24% gained 0.3% and Royal Dutch Shell PLC /zigman2/quotes/204253697/delayed UK:RDSB -0.27% /zigman2/quotes/207682964/composite RDS.B -0.51% added 0.8%. Read more about oil prices
Shares of heavyweight miner BHP Billiton PLC /zigman2/quotes/208108397/composite BHP +1.41% /zigman2/quotes/201448516/delayed AU:BHP -2.16% fell 2.4%, as the firm reported a 58% drop in half-year profit and said Chief Executive Marius Kloppers will retire. See: BHP Billiton CEO Marius Kloppers to retire.
Among other country-specific indexes in Europe, France’s CAC 40 index /zigman2/quotes/210597958/delayed FR:PX1 +0.71% lost 0.7% to 3,709.88.
France Télécom fell 2.1%, as the firm said it expects a difficult 2013 after posting a 79% decline in 2012 profit. See: France Télécom profit sinks 79% amid econ. decline
Shares of Lafarge SA rallied 5.5%, after the cement maker confirmed its plans to lower its debt level this year. Additionally, the firm reported a 27% drop in full-year profit. See: Lafarge profit falls 27%, confirms debt-cut goal
Cement makers were also on the rise in Germany, with shares of HeidelbergCement AG /zigman2/quotes/202418791/delayed DE:HEI +0.19% up 1.8%.
Deutsche Lufthansa AG /zigman2/quotes/205496028/delayed DE:LHA -0.96% on the other hand, slid 6.2%. The airline said late Tuesday it swung to a net profit in 2012, but that it planned to suspend dividends in 2013 to help retain cash. See: Lufthansa swings to profit, suspends dividend.
Germany’s DAX 30 index /zigman2/quotes/210597999/delayed DX:DAX +0.46% fell 0.3% to 7,728.90.