* FTSEurofirst 300 index rises 0.2 percent
* Focus on U.S. jobs as analysts upgrade estimates
* AXA and Allianz earnings lead insurers higher
By Atul Prakash
LONDON, Aug 2 (Reuters) - European shares extended gains to set a new two-month high on Friday, with investors betting that U.S. jobs numbers will surprise on the positive side and signal a further pickup in economic activity in the country.
The market also got a boost from some robust earnings reports, which resulted in the insurance sector topping the leaderboard. The STOXX Europe 600 Insurance index rose 0.9 percent, led by a 3.6 percent rise in AXA after its results came in better than predicted.
AXA was the top gainer on the FTSEurofirst 300 index , while Europe’s biggest insurer Allianz advanced 2 percent after its operating profit grew more strongly than expected in the second quarter.
Analysts said that along with keeping a close eye on the earnings season, the market’s focus was on the U.S. jobs data, which was scheduled to be released at 1230 GMT.
Some analysts upgraded their forecasts for the non-farm payroll numbers to 200,000, from a consensus number of 184,000 for July after data showed on Thursday U.S. factory activity had jumped to a two-year high last month and jobless claims hit a 5-1/2-year low last week.
Although encouraging numbers will raise chances of a cut in U.S. stimulus sooner than expected, investors were starting to look beyond the Federal Reserve’s bond purchases and focusing on long-term implications of a stronger economy, analysts said.
“The market has now come to grips with the fact that when the tapering actually starts, the economy will be much stronger. This optimism, together with a better earnings season, is driving the market at the moment,” Philippe Gijsels, head of research at BNP Paribas Fortis Global Markets, said.
Gijsels expected the U.S. jobs numbers between 190,000 and 200,000. Deutsche Bank predicted a figure of more than 225,000, adding that a number of other analyst estimates had been revised to 190,000-210,000 in the last 24 hours.
Analysts said a positive data surprise would push the market higher. The FTSEurofirst 300 was up 0.2 percent at 1,222.99 points at 0811 GMT after rising to 1,225.74, the highest in two months, while the Euro STOXX 50 was flat at 2,808.46 points.
“From a technical perspective the Euro STOXX 50 index has been in a recovery in the form of a steep upward trend since the end of June. We do expect that it will test its annual top at 2,851,” said Thorsten Grisse, technical analyst at Commerzbank.
Most European indexes were up, but Italy’s FTSE MIB fell 0.5 percent on political uncertainty after a court ruling upholding a tax fraud conviction against Silvio Berlusconi raised questions about the ruling coalition’s stability.