* FTSEurofirst 300 up 0.2 percent
* Novartis boosted by BofA-ML upgrade
* Portugal uncertainty highlights euro zone problems
By Tricia Wright
LONDON, April 8 (Reuters) - European shares were led higher by the healthcare sector on Monday as investors tiptoed back into the market with a cautious focus on the start of the U.S. first-quarter earnings season.
The FTSEurofirst 300 closed up 0.2 percent at 1,164.79 points, in the aftermath of Friday’s 1.6 percent drop on weak U.S. jobs figures. The euro zone’s blue-chip Euro STOXX 50 advanced 0.2 percent to 2,589.25 points.
Traders noted a lack of conviction on Monday - evidenced by low volumes - with some investors apprehensive before the start of the U.S. earnings season, which kicks off with first-quarter results from aluminium producer Alcoa later in the day.
The FTSEurofirst 300 traded 83 percent of its 90-day daily average.
“I think the markets are taking stock and thinking what are company earnings forecasts (going to be like), what is the consensus going to be for forward P/Es (price/earnings ratios),” Michael Hewson, analyst at CMC Markets, said.
Investors who dipped into the market opted for sectors better suited to a low growth environment, such as healthcare , ahead 1 percent.
Swiss drugmaker Novartis, up 1.8 percent, was among the biggest individual points contributors to the FTSEurofirst 300, helped by an upgrade on the stock from BofA Merrill Lynch to “neutral”, according to traders.
Some fund managers, however, highlighted that so-called defensive sectors, which have spearheaded the rally since the turn of the year, are now looking expensive.
The healthcare and consumer staples sectors trade on respective 12-month forward P/E ratios of 13.9 times and 16.7 times, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine data.
“Clearly the economic environment isn’t as good as it has been... but still there are sound valuation opportunities out there,” said Kevin Lilley, who runs Old Mutual’s European Equities fund, which has 55 million pounds ($84.1 million) assets under management.
Lilley is “overweight” financials which, according to Thomson Reuters data, trade on a 12-month forward P/E of 9.8 times.
Traders said that while the long-term outlook for European equities remained positive, with equities offering better returns than cash and bonds, near-term prospects were clouded by uncertainty due to the euro zone’s debt crisis.
Concerns over the euro zone - which resurfaced last month after inconclusive elections in Italy - were heightened when Portugal’s constitutional court rejected some of the austerity measures introduced as a condition of the country’s bailout.
Portugal’s benchmark PSI 20 equity index underperformed gains elsewhere in Europe, with the Lisbon market falling 1.4 percent.
Some investors were relatively unfazed by the bouts of political turmoil which have led to jittery trade in recent weeks.
“There’s always going to be something out there that goes against the grain but what this crisis has shown... is that there is a real political will for things to continue and for the euro to hold it together and the euro zone to hold it together,” Old Mutual’s Lilley said.