European shares steady around peaks, Shell slumps

Fri Jan 17, 2014 3:34am EST

* FTSEurofirst 300 up 0.16 pct

* Warning from heavyweight Shell adds to earnings concerns

* Accor's beat offers some cheer

By Toni Vorobyova

LONDON, Jan 17 (Reuters) - European shares steadied around 5-1/2 year highs on Friday, with gains pegged back by a profit warning from oil major Royal Dutch Shell which followed a crop of weak earnings from heavyweight U.S. companies overnight.

Shell shares fell some 3 percent after it warned that fourth quarter figures would be significantly lower than recent levels of profitability.

The news saw Britain's FTSE 100 - where Shell's A and B shares together make up around 8 percent of the index - lag other European bourses.

The impact, though, was felt broadly, with Shell also taking 1.3 points off the pan-European FTSEurofirst 300. The broad index was up 0.16 percent at 1,339.93 points by 0821 GMT, holding around recent highs at levels last seen in mid-2008.

The warning fed into investor concerns that the fourth quarter results season will fail to deliver the strong earnings growth that analysts say is needed to justify the current high equity valuations and to enable further price gains in future.

European companies only start reporting earnings next week, but in the United States the past day has brought disappointment from the likes of Intel, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, hitting equity markets and sentiment globally.

"People are mainly looking at where earnings are going after lots of disappointing earning in the U.S. last night. There is lots of talk about a correction coming up. I still think underlying sentiment is good, but we probably will have a bit of a fall back," said Neil Marsh, strategist at Newedge.

Essilor added to investor concerns, with the world's largest maker of ophthalmic lenses missing its 2013 sales goal. Its shares - which had rallied 11.6 percent in the past month - fell 2.8 percent on Friday.

"This downturn could raise some worries about the 2014 outlook for European sales, particularly in France," analysts at Societe Generale said in a note.

"After its recent rally, the stock price should be under pressure even if this is not a big miss."

Overall, STOXX Europe 600 companies seen missing fourth quarter consensus by 0.4 percent on revenues and by 0.9 percent on earnings, according to StarMine SmartEstimates, which focus on the up-to-date predictions by the historically most accurate analysts.

One bright spot, though, came from Accor, with shares in Europe's largest hotel group up 1.7 percent after it raised its operating profit goal for 2013.

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