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Europe: Shares flat, macro gloom saps early Federal Reserve boost

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[MILAN] European shares ended a choppy trading session flat on Thursday as disappointing economic data, including a technical recession in Italy, gradually sapped an early boost provided by a dovish tone from the US Federal Reserve.

The Stoxx 600 ended the day up 0.04 per cent but rose a strong 6.1 per cent in January, its best monthly performance since October 2015, as global markets recovered from a turbulent 2018.

Economic indicators showed, however, that concerns for the European economy were warranted. German retail fell at the fastest rate in 11 years, British car production posted its biggest drop since 2009 and euro zone growth was the slowest in four years.

A Bloomberg report that Deutsche Bank was expecting a government-brokered merger with rival Commerzbank if efforts to restructure fell short of targets also hit the banking sector. The German lenders fell 4 per cent and 6.7 per cent respectively.

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"It is a double whammy for the eurozone, Italy has slipped into recession and there is increased chatter of a Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank merger", commented CMC analyst David Madden.

Milan's FTSE MIB slipped 0.2 per cent while Frankfurt's DAX also dipped 0.1 per cent.

Higher crude prices and a strong update from Shell helped to support the market with the oil index rising 1.8 per cent, the biggest sectoral gainer in Europe.

Royal Dutch Shell jumped almost 4 per cent as annual profits rose by more than a third to US$21.4 billion, the highest since 2014.

"Time for investors to give credit where credit is due," wrote Bernstein analyst Clint Oswald, saying Shell remained one of his top picks for this year.

"We think 2019 will be a repeat, guidance will be maintained, and 2020 targets are on track," he added.

There were also strong results from Diageo, the world's largest spirits company, which rose 4.6 per cent after posting higher half-year sales, helped by strength in India and China.

There was also a lot of activity in the telecoms sector, with the Dutch telecoms company KPN up 6.2 per cent on speculation of a bid by Brookfield Asset Management.

Telecom Italia jumped about 5 per cent after the US hedge fund Elliott raised its stake, escalating a power battle over the group with top shareholder Vivendi.

The Swiss watchmaker Swatch tumbled 6.1 per cent after posting lower-than-expected results amid a downturn in Asia and France, while a disappointing update sent Germany's Software down 4.8 per cent to the bottom of the Stoxx.

Analysts have been steadily cutting profit expectations for European firms. According to Refinitiv IBES, fourth-quarter earnings for the Stoxx 600 are expected to have grown less than 4 per cent, versus more than 10 per cent expected last month.

REUTERS