Europe shares fall after shift to Fed rate guidance

Thu Mar 20, 2014 7:55am EDT

* FTSEurofirst 300 loses 0.8 pct, down 1.7 pct in 2014

* Shift to Fed rate outlook sparks pullback in global stocks

* Impact on European stocks milder than on emerging markets

* Insurers like AXA seen as winners of shift in rate outlook

By Blaise Robinson

PARIS, March 20 (Reuters) - European stocks fell broadly on Thursday as global equities pulled back after Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen hinted that U.S. interest rates might start to rise sooner than expected.

A number of insurers including AXA and Aegon , seen as benefiting from the shift in the interest rate outlook, bucked the trend and strongly rallied.

In comments which sent U.S. stocks and bonds sinking, Yellen said late on Wednesday that the central bank will probably end its massive bond-buying programme in the autumn, and could start raising interest rates around six months later.

"This is triggering a real correction in interest rate forecasts, with ripple effects hitting virtually all asset classes, from equities to forex," said David Thebault, head of quantitative sales trading at Global Equities.

"What makes investors nervous is that it sounds risky for the Fed to unveil a calendar when macro and micro signals are still quite mixed - just look at FedEx's earnings."

U.S. bellwether FedEx Corp, the world's No. 2 package delivery company, on Wednesday posted lower-than-expected results and cut its fiscal-year profit forecast.

At 1115 GMT, the FTSEurofirst 300 index of top European shares was down 0.8 percent at 1,294.24 points. The benchmark index has lost 1.7 percent so far in 2014.

Emerging equities were hit even harder by the Fed's announcement. The MSCI emerging market index tumbled 1.5 percent on Thursday, taking it 6.6 percent lower since the start of the year.

Sharp investment outflows from developing countries as the Fed scales back its quantitative easing programme and geopolitical issues shake confidence have in turn supported equities in Europe as investors on an economic recovery.

Shares in AXA and Aegon rose 2.4 percent and 3.1 percent on Thursday, as the insurers are seen benefiting from the shift in the outlook for U.S. interest rates.

"For sure, the exit from the quantitative easing is positive for names exposed to the U.S. and AXA is one of them," said Francois Boissin, an analyst at Exane BNP Paribas.

"Rising interest rates make legacy guarantees less expensive, makes the value of options granted to policy holders less valuable, and in new businesses it helps insurers to secure future margins. It's not going to be visible in earnings in the short term, it does however have a positive impact on the balance sheet, and new business prospects."

Shares in Siemens also gained ground, up 0.8 percent and featuring among Europe's top blue-chip gainers. It was boosted by an upbeat note from UBS which lifted its recommendation on the stock to "buy" from "neutral", seeing upside potential following a weak performance so far in 2014.

"Since the start of the year the stock has underperformed the market and the sector by about 7 percent, and with several potential catalysts ahead, we think now is the time to buy back into the shares," UBS analysts said in a note.

Around Europe on Thursday, Britain's FTSE 100 index was down 1.1 percent, Germany's DAX index down 1 percent, and France's CAC 40 down 0.9 percent.

Europe bourses in 2014: link.reuters.com/pad95v

Asset performance in 2014: link.reuters.com/rav46v

Today's European research round-up (Additional reporting by Maya Nikolaeva; Editing by Catherine Evans)