European shares stall at 5-1/2 year peaks
* FTSEurofirst 300 down 0.2 pct, off 5-1/2 year high * Earnings prospects in focus to justify high valuations * U.S. jobs data, Fed minutes, ECB meeting all due this week By Toni Vorobyova LONDON, Jan 8 (Reuters) - European shares stalled at 5-1/2 year highs on Wednesday, with investors reluctant to push the market higher in the face of mixed corporate news and uncertainty ahead of central bank announcements and U.S. data. Dutch paints and chemicals firm AkzoNobel led the falls on the FTSEurofirst 300 index, down 3.0 percent after raising guidance for restructuring charges this year and taking what analysts at ING described as a "cautious tone" on current trading conditions. Sainsbury, meanwhile, fell 2.1 percent as investors looked past strong Christmas sales at the British supermarket chain to focus instead on its warning that consumers were likely to tighten their belts in the next few months. The notes of caution are of concern to investors who had been banking on a recovery in European earnings as the key driver for equity market gains this year. With the market already trading at multi-year high valuations - thanks to central bank stimulus - analysts say that price-to-earnings ratios have little scope to rise further, meaning that earnings need to increase before prices can do so. Indeed, the broad STOXX Europe 600 index trades at around 13.55 times its expected earnings over the next 12 months - the highest ratio for nine years, according to Datastream. "Those valuations are predicated on consensus earnings growth of 13.5 percent for this year and I suspect that - while things might be perceived as getting better from a global macro perspective - for European companies delivering that level of earnings growth is still very much a challenge," said Ian Richards, strategist at Exane BNP Paribas. "I feel that in the first quarter we are going to see some sort of challenge to these highs in Europe and it wouldn't surprise me to see markets trading a bit lower over the coming months." The pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 was down 0.2 percent at 1,317.71 points at 1133 GMT, retreating off an intra-day peak of 1,321.70 points, which was its highest since June 2008. Traders said investors were also unwilling to place fresh big bets in view of a busy calendar including the U.S. private sector jobs report at 1315 GMT, followed by the minutes from the Federal Reserve's December meeting after the European close. The rest of the week also brings a European Central Bank meeting on Thursday and U.S. non-farm payrolls on Friday. "Both events should be market supportive in that we will get a dovish press conference and we should get a solid non-farm payrolls number," said Daniel McCormack, strategist at Macquarie. "(But) it's a big week for data and that is going to create some nervousness in the market ahead of that."