European stocks tread water as US fiscal gloom halts Christmas rally

Europe's main stock markets treaded water on Thursday, with investors nervous that US leaders have still not agreed a deal to avert the fiscal cliff, dealers said.

London's FTSE 100 index of leading companies slipped 0.05 percent to 5,958.34 points, while in Frankfurt the DAX 30 edged up 0.05 percent to 7,672.1 points and in Paris the CAC 40 added 0.06 percent to reach its highest close of the year at 3,666.73 points.

The Milan market added 0.41 percent and Madrid shares were flat.

In foreign exchange deals, the euro edged up to $1.3227, from $1.3226 late in New York on Wednesday, when it had struck an 8.5-month peak at $1.3308. Gold prices slid to $1,650.50 an ounce on the London Bullion Market, from $1,665.

Many European shares spent the morning in negative territory, put perked up on the announcement that the US InterContinentalExchange (ICE) will buy transatlantic peer NYSE Euronext for $8.2 billion (6.2 billion euros) to create the world's biggest market operator.

On Wednesday, European equities had staged a "Santa" rally on hopes of a breakthrough deal to avoid the US fiscal cliff and following news of rebounding German business confidence.

After European markets closed it emerged that little progress had been made in the talks to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff of huge tax hikes and deep spending cuts that comes automatically into effect on January 1 unless US lawmakers agree on other measures.

"The Christmas rally so far has been fuelled purely on the expectation that there will be a deal on the fiscal cliff in the US ahead of the festive break next week that is rapidly approaching," said Capital Spreads boss Angus Campbell.

"Yesterday a spanner was thrown in the works and it looks like negotiations have taken a backward step," he said.

Wall Street stocks were also mixed in midday trade Thursday, as traders shrugged off an upward revision in US economic growth and focused on concerns about the fiscal cliff.

Official data showed the US economy grew 3.1 percent in the third quarter, faster than previously estimated, but analysts said underlying economic activity remained fragile.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average slid 0.06 percent to 13,244.11 points.

The broad-market S&P 500 added 0.06 percent to 1,436.65 points, while the tech-rich Nasdaq Composite shed 0.09 percent to 3,041.53 points.

With less than two weeks to go before the fiscal cliff of huge tax hikes and deep spending cuts is due to take effect, US lawmakers have still not reached a compromise budget deal to cut the nation's deficit with less painful measures.

President Barack Obama said Wednesday he and the Republicans had narrowed differences to "a few hundred billion dollars". But a deal remains elusive.

Republicans are loath to raise taxes, while Democrats do not want to cut spending on programmes such as Medicare.

House Speaker John Boehner, the Republican negotiating with the president, has said he is willing to extend tax breaks for everyone earning less than $1 million per year. Obama has said, however, he is willing to go no higher than $400,000.

Boehner announced Wednesday that he will move to pass his measure, which he describes as his "Plan B", through the House Thursday but Obama warned he would veto the legislation.

While both sides have rejected the other's offers for a deal they said that talks are ongoing.

Asian markets traded mixed on Thursday following big gains in the previous session.

The yen slipped against the euro and dollar after Japan's central bank unveiled more huge monetary easing but it held on to earlier gains as traders had mostly expected the new measures.

Tokyo fell 1.19 percent on profit-taking after surging to an eight-month high on Wednesday.

But Seoul closed 0.32 percent higher, with the election of conservative Park Geun-hye seeming to have little effect, although dealers were broadly happy as she favours stability over big change.

Shanghai gained 0.28 percent, Sydney was up 0.35 percent and Hong Kong staged a late rally to end 0.16 percent higher.

burs-rl/wai

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