Europe shares set to record best year since 2009

Reuters

PARIS (Reuters) - European shares inched higher early in a shortened session on Tuesday before the New Year break, with pan-European indexes set to post their biggest annual gains since 2009.

Volumes were extremely low as many European stock markets including Germany, Italy and Switzerland have already closed for the year. UK markets were set to close at 1230 GMT and Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and Lisbon at 1300 GMT.

At 0900 GMT, the FTSEurofirst 300 index of top European shares was up 0.2 percent at 1,314.89 points while the euro zone's blue-chip Euro STOXX 50 index was up 0.1 percent at 3,103.94 points.

That put the two benchmarks on course for gains of about 16 percent and 18 percent respectively for 2013, their best year since 2009, after signs of economic recovery coupled with a long run of cheap central bank money fuelled a stock market revival.

"This year has been great for stocks, with a return of risk appetite as interest rates were very low and hopes to see an economic pick-up in the euro zone rise," FXCM analyst Vincent Ganne said.

"But there are still strong divergences between euro zone countries, with Germany clearly outperforming. The fact that the euro currency is strong is not having the same impact across the region."

Germany's DAX, which closed for the year at midday on Monday, outperformed other major European stock markets in 2013 in terms of percentage returns, while the Dublin and Athens bourses both surged for a second consecutive year.

The DAX rose by around 26 percent, and was only beaten by smaller, less liquid stock exchanges such as Dublin's Irish Stock Exchange index which has risen roughly 34 percent, or the Athens General Share Index, which is up by around 28 percent.

Overall, European shares, which have enjoyed brisk investment inflows in the second half of this year, have rallied as investor worries over Spain and Italy abated, Europe's macroeconomic indicators improved and the European Central Bank and the U.S. Federal Reserve provided massive liquidity.

Earlier this month, the Fed announced that it would slightly trim its huge monetary stimulus programme, but investors have taken heart from stronger U.S. economic data and a commitment from the Fed to keep interest rates low for longer.

"Gains have been pretty solid, but compared with Wall Street which is trading at record highs, Europe still has a nice catch-up rally just to go back to 2007 levels," a Paris-based equity and exchange-traded fund (ETF) trader said.

Among European sectors, the STOXX auto sector has been the best sector in 2013, up 37 percent. Telecoms and media also performed well, both up about 33 percent on the year, boosted by a wave of M&A deals.

Bucking the trend, the basic resources sector, home of mining groups Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton , took a beating during the year, tumbling 13 percent as metal prices fell, including gold and copper.

Gold prices plummeted in 2013, with the precious metal - seen as a safe haven in times of uncertainty - heading for its biggest annual decline since 1981 as investors shifted money to riskier equities.

Asset returns in 2013: http://link.reuters.com/dub25t

(Editing by Catherine Evans)

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