Banks lead European shares to 5-1/2 year high as growth hopes build

Wed Jan 15, 2014 6:41am EST

* FTSEurofirst 300 up 0.5 pct, highest since 2008

* Euro zone banks benefit from easier regulatory rules

* World Bank lifts growth outlook for 1st time in 3 years

* Burberry surges after good retail sales

By Alistair Smout

LONDON, Jan 15 (Reuters) - European shares rose on Wednesday to fresh 5-1/2 year highs, buoyed by a better global growth outlook from the World Bank, with gains supported by easing regulatory concerns over banks in the euro zone.

Euro zone banks gained 1.3 percent, the top sectoral riser, after the European Central Bank said lenders will not be required in upcoming stress tests to adjust sovereign debt portfolios they hold to maturity to reflect current market values.

Wednesday's top gainers in the sector, such as Societe Generale and B P Milano, have large exposure to sovereign bonds in the region.

The sector is already up 9.3 percent this year. It received a boost earlier this week when banking regulators agreed to ease regulation of balance sheets to try to avoid crimping financing for the world's economy.

"Euro zone banks had good news from Basel at the beginning of the week, and it looks like regulators are lessening the regulatory burden on the banking sector," Gerard Lane, equity strategist at Shore Capital, said.

"That regulatory burden has been seen to be a burden on economic recovery... and there can be a vicious cycle. As soon as there's a recovery, banks will be able to repair themselves."

Stocks that are sensitive to global growth trends such as financials, energy and consumer discretionary stocks combined to add 5 points to the pan-European FTSEurofirst 300, accounting for the majority of the index's 0.5 percent advance to 1,333.17 points.

The index rose to levels not seen since the middle of 2008, and Germany's DAX hit new all-time highs.

The gains came after the World Bank said the global economy had come to a "turning point," with fiscal austerity and policy uncertainty no longer weighing as heavily on most richer economies. It predicted total global growth of 3.2 percent in 2014.

Concerns over growth, especially in the United States, had dragged on equities following disappointing U.S. jobs data late last week.

But stocks pared sharp losses on Tuesday, helped by signs of life in the U.S. economy as forecast-beating December retail sales data showed it gathering steam at the end of last year and poised for stronger growth in 2014.

"Last year there was a fiscal squeeze of more than 3.5 percent of GDP in the United States, which will more than halve in 2014. There'll be a natural acceleration of U.S. GDP, and that will benefit globally," Shore Capital's Lane said.

Growth should help earnings, which fueled Europe's top gainer Burberry. The luxury firm posted a 14 percent rise in underlying retail revenue in the Christmas quarter and saw its stock trade 4.8 percent higher.

The update was seen as boding well for the consumer discretionary sector at large, after a festive trading period which has proved mixed for high street retailers and supermarkets.

"It seems that those more expensive ticket items will still be sold over what has been a mixed Christmas trading period ... Luxury's advantage versus staples still holds," said Mike van Dulken, head of research at Accendo Markets.