European shares hold near six-year highs; utilities slip

Thu May 29, 2014 12:45pm EDT

* FTSEurofirst 300 up 0.1 pct, near six-year high

* DAX flat after record high on Wednesday

* Utilities underperform as Citi downgrades some stocks

By Tricia Wright and Sudip Kar-Gupta

LONDON, May 29 (Reuters) - European shares held near multi-year highs on Thursday, with the region's main stock markets supported by prospects of new economic stimulus next week from the European Central Bank.

Utility stocks underperformed after Citigroup cut its ratings on some southern European stocks in the sector, such as Enel. Regulatory pressures and increasing competition could affect the companies' earnings, the bank said.

Citigroup's downgrades led to a 0.2 percent decline by the STOXX Europe 600 Utilities Index, compared with a 0.1 percent rise on the broader STOXX 600 index. The utilities index has risen about 13 percent since the start of 2014, making it one of the top-performing sectors.

The pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 index closed up 0.1 percent at 1,379.05 points, within a whisker of a near six-year high of 1,380.52 points that it reached this week.

Germany's DAX was flat at 9,938.90 points after rising to a record high of 9,957.87 points on Wednesday. France's CAC was flat at 4,530.51 points.

"The trend is up, the trend's your friend, but I wouldn't buy up at these levels," said Darren Courtney-Cook, head of trading at Central Markets Investment Management. He said he would prefer to wait for pullbacks before buying DAX futures .

Expectations that European Central Bank head Mario Draghi will cut interest rates or introduce other measures next week to stop inflation falling too low and help the economy have enabled the region's stock markets to maintain a broad, upwards trajectory since the start of 2014.

The FTSEurofirst 300 is up by about 5 percent since the start of 2014, while the DAX and CAC have risen by about 4-5 percent.

Naeem Aslam, Ava Trade's chief market analyst, said the majority of investors were still buying equities on expectations of an ECB move, but he warned that the outcome of the bank's meeting may not be as clear-cut as some think.

"Traders are waiting for Mr Draghi to open the gates for further easing of monetary policy," Aslam said.

"But make no mistake, this is not going to be as easy as many are thinking," he said, referring to opposition to cutting rates that Draghi could face from some fellow policymakers.

Europe bourses in 2014: link.reuters.com/pap87v

Asset performance in 2014: link.reuters.com/gap87v

Today's European research round-up (Editing by Ruth Pitchford)