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Europe: Heavyweight banks help shares as rate hike talk mounts

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[MILAN] European shares came off highs on Friday, as growing talk about central bank tightening in the region hit utilities and export-oriented stocks but continued to boost the heavyweight banking sector.

A report that some European Central Bank (ECB) policymakers had discussed the possibility of rate hikes sent government bond yields soaring, making dividend-paying sectors like utilities less attractive.

The euro also surged on the report by news agency Bloomberg, weighing on the DAX which is heavily geared to export-oriented stocks like industrial and auto makers. The German blue chip index fell 0.1 per cent.

But the pan-European STOXX 600 index managed to end in positive territory, up 0.1 per cent, as banks - its biggest sub-sector with a market value of 1.2 trillion euros - rose 0.8 per cent, helped by the rate prospects.

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Stronger than expected jobs data in the US earlier on Friday also helped, further cementing expectations of a rate hike next week in the world's largest economy. "Higher yields mean that (financials) will have better prospects for revenues, less pressure on their shoulders to generate revenues," Ipek Ozkardeskaya, senior market analyst at London Capital Group, said.

Sources told Reuters some ECB rate-setters had raised the possibility of hiking rates from their current record lows before the end of QE, but that the discussion was brief, and there was not broad support for the idea.

On Thursday, the ECB indicated a diminishing urgency for more policy action, signaling an optimistic outlook for the European economy and sending banking shares higher. Money markets are now pricing in an ECB interest rate hike by March 2018.

Eurozone banks rose 1.8 per cent at a 14-month high, led by gains of more than 5 percent in Germany's Commerzbank, Italy's Banco BPM and Spain's Banco Popular .

BT was among top STOXX gainers, with the British telecoms group rising 4 per cent after reaching a deal with regulator Ofcom to legally separate its Openreach network division. "We see this as positive for investor sentiment on BT in terms of removing a notable overhang, an absence of negative surprises and avoiding a prolonged period of uncertainty had Ofcom taken its case to the EC," analysts at UBS said in a note.

Among fallers, Segro declined 5.6 per cent after the property developer launched a 573 million pounds rights issue to fund the purchase of the remaining 50 per cent stake in an airport joint venture.