European shares inch up in languid pre-Christmas trade

LONDON (Reuters) - European shares inched up in thin trade on Thursday, as a handful of corporate updates and central bank meetings gave little impetus for larger moves.

The German share price index DAX graph is pictured at the stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, December 18, 2019. REUTERS/Staff

Markets held slightly below highs touched earlier in the week when a Sino-U.S. trade agreement and a victory for the Conservatives in a UK general election spurred buying.

Renewed fears of a no-deal Brexit, brought about by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s setting of a hard Dec. 2020 deadline for a trade deal, lent an air of caution as investors looked to the new year for fresh cues.

The benchmark STOXX 600 .STOXX index was just 0.1% higher, with healthcare .SXDP and oil stocks .SXEP leading gains, while automobile stocks .SXAP were the worst performers.

“It’s very much a period of digestion of (last week’s) news, and maybe thoughts for 2020, rather than anybody looking to do much before the year-end,” said Roger Jones, head of equities at London and Capital Equity Solutions and Equity Funds.

Italian payments services provider Nexi NEXII.MI rose 4.7% and was the top gainer on the STOXX 600 after lender Intesa SanPaolo ISP.MI agreed to sell it its payments business for 1 billion euros ($1.11 billion).

Swiss specialty chemicals maker Clariant CLN.S rose 2.1% after saying it was selling a unit to U.S.-based PolyOne Corp POL.N for $1.6 billion.

Data Respons DAT.OL jumped 20% after AKKA Technologies AKA.PA agreed to buy the Norwegian software company for around 3.7 billion Norwegian crowns ($404 million) in cash.

NMC Health NMC.L was the worst performer on the STOXX 600, extending losses after short-seller Muddy Waters took aim at the stock.

Export-oriented UK bluechip stocks .FTSE rose on weakness in the pound GDP=, while domestically focused stocks .FTMC were largely unchanged.

The Bank of England left its benchmark rate unchanged, as expected, saying it was too soon to gauge how much Johnson’s election victory would lift the Brexit uncertainty that has hung over the economy.

Sweden’s central bank became the first in Europe to move rates out of sub-zero territory. It raised its benchmark repo rate a quarter point to zero on Thursday, as expected.

Reporting by Ambar Warrick and Sruthi Shankar, editing by Larry King, Kirsten Donovan