GLOBAL MARKETS-European stocks hit highest since 2008 crash
* Stimulus hopes help European shares hit 4-1/2 year high * MSCI world share index just under June 2008 high * Wall Street expected to open up, Dow to hit new all-time high * Euro dips as traders mull ECB rate cut chances By Marc Jones LONDON, March 6 (Reuters) - European stock markets rose to their highest since the 2008 financial crisis on Wednesday, helped by signs the U.S. economy is improving and expectations of more pledges of support for growth from major central banks. U.S. stock index futures also pointed to fresh gains on Wall Street, after the previous session's stellar run saw the Dow Jones Industrial Average hit an all-time high. The European Central Bank, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan are all expected to stick to ultra-easy monetary policy at meetings this week, following on from reassurances by U.S. Federal Reserve officials that their stimulus programme remains in place. Analysts even see some scope for fresh action in Europe on Thursday, giving a 40 percent chance for more bond buying from the Bank of England and a 10 percent likelihood of an interest rate cut from the ECB. That, combined with some encouraging U.S. economic data this week and China's promise of record government spending to help sustain growth, pushed world and European share indexes higher on Wednesday. "It's panic buying," said Nick Xanders, who heads up European equity strategy at BTIG. "At this stage everyone wants to buy it, everyone wants to get involved, and everyone is scared of underperforming." The pan-European ESTOXX 50 was up 0.5 percent ahead of the start of U.S. trading as Frankfurt's DAX jumped 1 percent and London's FTSE 100 and Paris's CAC-40 added 0.2 percent. Those gains, coupled with a rise in Asian shares overnight, pushed the MSCI world index up 0.3 percent and just short of a new 4-3/4 year high. "Indexes are breaking above big resistance levels, and this is creating room on the upside," said Lionel Jardin, head of institutional sales at Assya Capital, in Paris. "The sentiment is that central banks are going to remain very accommodative for a while, and at the same time companies are in really good shape, with strong cashflows." EUROPEAN OUTLOOK Still, with the ECB's meeting in view and worries over the euro zone's debt crisis again on the rise due to Italy's political deadlock, German government bonds recovered some poise after a sell-off in the previous session. The Bund future was flat on day at 145.06 after dropping by around half a point on Tuesday, while Italian and Spanish government bonds also saw minor gains. Italian centre-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani, whose PD party won most votes in last week's inconclusive election, presents his policy plans to his party later. It could be significant if he produces enough to draw support from populist leader Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement. After a steady start, the euro was down 0.1 percent against the dollar at $1.3030 at 1250 GMT as traders waited to see whether the recent disappointing euro zone data and ongoing debt worries would be enough to see the ECB surprise consensus and cut rates on Thursday. As expected, official data confirmed the euro zone ended the year in its second recession since 2009. Eurostat fleshed out its numbers, showing Germany as the only major euro zone economy to grow in the quarter, at a crawl, while France, Spain and Italy all contracted. "There's reasonable downside to the euro. The situation in Italy is still uncertain," said Bill Diviney, currency strategist at Barclays. "Although we don't expect any big changes to President Draghi's stance, he's going to stay fairly dovish, given uncertainties," he added. COMMODITIES DRIFT The dollar, meanwhile, was slightly higher as investors awaited U.S. jobs and factory orders data to confirm expectations of a revival in demand growth following recent upbeat economic data from the U.S. and China. Economists in a Reuters poll expect the ADP employment figures due at 1315 GMT to show 170,000 jobs were created in February versus 192,000 new jobs in January. That will also provide a pointer for "non-farm payrolls" data on Friday. Growth-linked currencies were another beneficiary of the broader improvement in sentiment. The Aussie dollar rose 0.2 percent to $1.0280 as data showing moderate economic growth helped it extend its recovery from Monday's $1.0116 eight-month low. Commodity markets were more mixed, however, following sharp rises in the previous session. Despite the increasingly positive mood, there are still some areas of concern, namely the Chinese government's move to cool the country's overheated property market, the possible economic impact of U.S. spending cuts, and the deadlock in Italy. Brent oil fell back towards $111 a barrel following news of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's death, copper traders took profits after two days of gains, while gold edged up 0.2 percent to $1,575 an ounce. "In the next few days, central bank meetings are on the agenda, and after some economic indicators have surprised to the downside in February, market participants expect renewed assurance that monetary policy will remain expansionary for quite some time," Credit Suisse said in a note.