European shares hover near multi-year highs as next move pondered
* FTSEurofirst 300 up 0.1 pct, Euro STOXX 50 up 0.4 pct
* European shares struggling to break out of tight range
* Volatility hits 7-year lows
* Whitbread, Kuehne & Nagel climb on broker upgrades
By David Brett
LONDON, Nov 22 (Reuters) - European shares inched higher on Friday, consolidating near multi-year highs as investors awaited a new catalyst to drive equities out of their current tight trading range.
The FTSEurofirst 300 closed 1.31 points higher at 1,296.92 points, within a whisker of a 5-1/2-year closing high of 1,304.25 seen on Monday, but within a 40-point range from which the index has barely broken out since late October.
The euro zone's blue chip index closed up 11.64 points at 3,055.98, with trading volumes light on both indexes, at just 40 percent of their 90-day daily average.
"The overall impression is that the (Stoxx50) is still struggling to move beyond the peak that was reached in February 2011, at 3,077, which itself was the high-water mark since 2008," Charles Stanley analyst Bill McNamara said.
"Given that the index is ahead by 15.5 percent for the year there is no great pressure on investors to chase it higher at this point, and although further upside is possible in the near term I'd be surprised if it ended the year much above 3,100."
Equity markets remain supported by central bank stimulus, which has dulled returns in alternative asset classes such as bonds and cash, and traders said the recent lull could be a sign that investors are gearing themselves up for a year-end push.
"European equity markets remain very close to their highs with any pullbacks only minor. Unless something changes, further gains into year-end are most likely," said Lex van Dam, hedge fund manager at Hampstead Capital.
Central banks' commitment to supporting their economies has driven down equity risk premium and volatility, a sign that investors remain sanguine toward stocks.
The Euro STOXX 50 Volatility Index, which reflects options pricing and demand to protect against falls in the underlying cash market, hit levels not seen since early 2007 earlier on Friday.
"Very few people feel the need to hedge their positions at the moment, very few people are buying volatility," said Vincent Cassot, head of equity derivatives strategy at Societe Generale.
"That's the short-term picture, however. Investors are feeling relaxed for the rest of 2013, but a little less relaxed for the start of 2014 (when U.S. budget talks are set to resume). The curve is quite steep between the spot V2X, and the January contract, which currently trades at 18.65."
The spot V2X is at 14.3.
Investors are still putting their money into equities. European shares enjoyed a 21st straight week of inflows from U.S. investors in the seven days to Nov. 20, according to Thomson Reuters' Lipper service. That was the longest streak of weekly inflows since Lipper started to monitor flows in 1992.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch said in a note that despite strong inflows investor sentiment is not frothy enough to make a correction call. The bank said its global flow trading rule is in neutral territory and would require an improbable $16 billion of long-only equity inflows in the next two weeks to trigger a "sell" signal.
On a quiet day for corporate announcements, logistics services firm Kuehne & Nagel jumped 3.1 percent, boosted by an upgrade from Goldman Sachs.
Whitbread rose 3 percent and touched a record high after JPMorgan lifted its rating on the hotel and coffee shop operator to "overweight", citing positive news flow on the British economy.
Chemicals group Solvay, meanwhile, fell 2.5 percent as JP Morgan resumed its coverage of the firm with an "underweight" rating.