Robust bank results help European stocks keep rally alive
* FTSEurofirst 300 up 0.7 pct, Euro STOXX 50 up 0.6 pct
* Europe enjoying strongest earnings season since Q3 2012
* Dividend hopes spark rally in banking shares
PARIS, Feb 12 (Reuters) - European stocks climbed on Wednesday, extending their brisk week-long rally, with banking stocks leading the gainers after robust results fed hopes of rising dividends in the sector.
French lender Societe Generale said it would return more cash to shareholders in 2014, after posting a swing to a fourth-quarter profit. That sent its shares up 4.7 percent to a near-three year high.
Shares in ING surged 3.6 percent after it posted forecast-beating results and said it would review the early repayment of its final tranche of state aid. That could pave the way for the Dutch financial services group to resume dividend payments halted in 2008.
The STOXX euro zone bank index, up 0.9 percent on the day, has surged about 8 percent so far this year, strongly outperforming the overall market.
The FTSEurofirst 300 index of top European shares ended 0.7 percent higher at 1,326.79 points. The index has risen about 4.4 percent in the past six sessions, reversing more than two thirds of its late-January sell-off.
The euro zone's blue-chip Euro STOXX 50 index gained 0.6 percent, ending at 3,094.89 points.
Corporate results and outlooks in other sectors also helped lift the mood, with Heineken saying it expects a return to revenue growth in 2014 after a tough year last year.
Nearly halfway through Europe's earnings season, 59 percent of European companies have met or beaten quarterly profit forecasts, their best score since the third quarter of 2012, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine data.
In absolute terms, however, the data shows profits are down 3.5 percent compared to the same quarter a year before.
"We're not really worried because the results reflect last year's situation," said Mathieu L'Hoir, strategist at AXA Investment Managers, which has 536 billion euros ($727 billion) in assets under management.
"On the other hand, companies' outlooks are more favourable, with the euro zone economy picking up and the U.S. economy accelerating, which more than compensate for the slowdown in emerging markets."
Chinese trade data showing record January imports also lifted stocks on Wednesday and helped ease recent worries over the pace of growth in the world's second-biggest economy.
Data showed the value of China's total exports climbed 10.6 percent in January from a year earlier, well above forecasts for a 2 percent rise, while the value of imports rose 10 percent.
Shares in miners Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton and Anglo American rose between 0.7 and 1.5 percent.
"On the China figures, the export number is so far above consensus you have to question it," said Darren Sinden, trader at Titan Investment Partners.
"Oil imports number was up sharply too, which could imply increasing growth, but I think we will need to see confirmation before jumping to that conclusion."
Europe bourses in 2014:
Asset performance in 2014:
Today's European research round-up