European stocks lose steam after ECB holds rates

A rally by European stocks on strong Chinese trade data lost steam on Thursday after the European Central Bank and Bank of England held key interest rates steady.

However the euro gained against the dollar as traders reacted to positive bond sales by indebted eurozone nations Spain and Italy.

London's FTSE 100 index of leading companies posted a narrow gain of 0.05 percent to 6,101.51 points.

But Frankfurt's DAX 30 slid 0.16 percent to 7,708.47 points, and in Paris the CAC 40 fell 0.39 percent to 3,703.12 points.

In foreign exchange trade meanwhile, the European single currency gained to $1.3217 from $1.3061 late in New York on Wednesday. On the London Bullion Market, gold prices increased to $1,675 an ounce from $1,657.75 on Wednesday.

Asian equities closed higher after China released better-than-expected trade data that provided further evidence the world's second biggest economy has emerged from a drawn-out slumber, dealers said.

This gave an early boost to European stocks, but this began to fade after the ECB as expected kept rates at an all-time low of 0.75 percent, despite record high unemployment in the recession-hit 17-nation eurozone.

Later comments by ECB chief Mario Draghi indicated that a further rate cut or stimulus measures are currently not on the cards.

The BoE also maintained as expected its borrowing costs at a record low of 0.50 percent and left the amount of stimulus measures unchanged.

On sovereign debt markets, tension on Spanish and Italian bonds eased sharply in a further sign the eurozone debt crisis is relenting.

"Spain smashed expectations in a bonds auction, selling above its target range while Italy's bills auction pushed 12-month funding costs to hit the lowest level in three years," said Ishaq Siddiqi, strategist at ETX Capital trading group.

Spain's Treasury raised 5.816 billion euros ($7.617 billion) with bonds of two, six and 13 years maturity, with rates of return demanded by investors falling sharply compared to rates in previous sales.

Italy's Treasury meanwhile raised 8.5 billion euros with short-term paper.

Michael Hewson, Senior Market Analyst at CMC Markets UK, saw this as a sign that investors are becoming more confident in investing in higher yielding Italian and Spanish debt given the ECB's pledge to buy up bonds in case countries seek and implement a bailout programme.

Falling borrowing rates also helped provide support for the euro, he added.

While borrowing rates continue to fall, the ECB is sitting on the sidelines, said Jonathan Loynes at Capital Economics.

"But if the news on the economy remains poor and market concerns over Spain and other peripheral economies resurface (ECB chief Mario) Draghis pledge to do whatever it takes to preserve the euro may soon be tested," he added.

The French central bank on Thursday repeated its estimate that France fell into a mild recession at the end of 2012, putting contraction of the economy at 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter.

US stocks also wavered, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 0.09 percent to 13,402.99 points in midday trade.

The broad-based S&P 500 rose 0.21 percent to 1,464.05, while the Nasdaq Composite slipped 0.02 percent to 3,105.05.

On the corporate front, shares in Britain's biggest retailer Tesco rose 1.79 percent to 355.4 pence after the supermarket chain said its sales rose at the fastest pace for three years during the Christmas and New Year trading period.

Tesco, which has struggled in recent times both in its main market Britain and abroad, said sales at its British stores open more than 12 months rose 1.8 percent in the six weeks to January 5 compared with sales in the equivalent period one year earlier.

Shares in beleaguered Finnish mobile phone giant Nokia soared after it published partial fourth quarter earnings that were better than expected.

The share climbed 15 percent on the Helsinki stock exchange before slipping back to close up 10.8 percent, as investors cheered the company's announcement of an eight percent increase in sales in its Devices and Services unit to 3.9 billion euros.

burs-rl/wai

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