Linde surge helps European shares end flat amid rising coronavirus fears

(Reuters) - European shares fell marginally for the first time in three sessions on Thursday as a surge in new coronavirus cases in China wiped out any optimism about a slowing spread rate in China, but Linde’s record high on upbeat growth outlook helped offset losses.

FILE PHOTO: The German share price index DAX graph is pictured at the stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Staff/File Photo

London's blue chip index .FTSE significantly underperformed, down 1.1% as a rallying pound hit its internationally exposed companies, while utility Centrica CNA.L plunged 15% on reporting a 35% drop in 2019 profit. [.L]

The sterling surged 0.7% amid strong expectations that the appointment of a new British finance minister will pave the way for a more expansionary budget next month. [GBP/]

After trading lower in the session the pan-European STOXX 600 index .STOXX finished flat as the World Health Organization said cases of coronavirus infections are not rising dramatically outside China, calming some jitters.

The index notched new highs in the last two sessions on optimism over what appeared to be a decline in new cases of infection, as well as a slow restart in factory activity after an extended break in China.

But a dramatic jump in new cases after China deployed a new diagnostic method, and a record rise in the death toll, dashed those hopes and swiftly subdued risk appetite. HSBC lowered its first-quarter forecast for mainland China’s economic growth on Thursday.

While the new charts of infection rates look much more worrying, the number of recoveries is also on the rise, providing some hope that the situation is still moving in the right direction, said Chris Beauchamp, chief market analyst at IG.

Auto stocks .SXAP slid 0.8% after data showed auto sales in China likely fell 18% in January, their 19th straight month of decline, with the virus outbreak further hurting demand.

Nestle SA NESN.S, the biggest firm on the STOXX 600 by market capitalization, dropped 2.2% after it pushed back its 2020 growth target to over the next two years.

Among bright spots were German shares of industrial gases group Linde LINI.DE which rose 3.2% after it said it aims for further profit gain in 2020. Its rise helped Germany's China-sensitive DAX .GADXI wipe most of the session's losses.

Zurich Insurance ZURN.S and Dutch peer NN Group NN.AS, electrical parts maker Rexel SA RXL.PA and Commerzbank CBKG.DE all rallied to the top of the STOXX 600 after handily topping earnings expectations.

European real estate .SX86P, utility .SX6P and healthcare sectors .SXDP benefited from some defensive buying.

Italian shares .FTMIB managed to weather the rout as Telecom Italia TLIT.MI surged after on expectations for M&A moves on its network, while payment firm Nexi NEXII.MI jumped on multiple price target hikes after strong earnings.

Reporting by Ambar Warrick and Susan Mathew in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Chizu Nomiyama