European shares edge lower, Aviva hit hard

Last Updated: Thu, Mar 07, 2013 18:10 hrs

* FTSEurofirst 300 down 0.1 percent

* ECB holds rates steady; no hint of further easing

* Aviva top faller, slashes dividend

* Aggreko and Carrefour rise after reassuring results

By Tricia Wright

LONDON, March 7 (Reuters) - European shares ended slightly lower on Thursday, held back by a post-results slump for British insurer Aviva, and some said they expected the pullback to continue in the short term.

The FTSEurofirst 300 index, which hit a 4-1/2 year intraday high of 1,193.35 points on Wednesday, closed down 0.1 percent at 1,185.17 points.

The main focus was on the European Central Bank which left its benchmark interest rate unchanged, as was widely expected, and offered no hints about monetary policy easing in the months ahead.

While the index saw no clear reaction to the decision, it pared back gains during the press conference when ECB President Mario Draghi was non-committal when asked whether he felt equity markets were fairly priced at current levels.

"It certainly wouldn't be surprising to us if we were to see a pull-back in equities, at least in the short-term," Henk Potts, market strategist at Barclays, said.

"But in saying that fundamentals remain very supportive indeed, therefore we'd encourage investors to continue to use any weakness to increase their exposure to an asset class that's likely to outperform, at least in the medium to long term."

Aviva's shares slid 12.5 percent, one of the biggest drags on the FTSEurofirst 300 index, after it slashed its 2012 dividend by more than a quarter to repay debt.

The decision will come as a big disappointment, following in the tracks of peer RSA which cut its dividend last month, since one of the sector's main attractions for stock market investors is its ability to pay relatively big dividends.

Panmure Gordon, in response, downgraded its rating on Aviva to "hold", while lowering its target price to 340 pence, though the broker reckoned the removal of the uncertainty of the dividend would ultimately strengthen the investment case.

"Whilst many investors will be very disappointed, we also believe that this removes the potentially damaging uncertainty over a future potential cut," it said in a note.

Meanwhile, British temporary power provider Aggreko and French supermarket retailer Carrefour notched up good gains after posting reassuring results, with Aggreko ahead 10.3 percent while Carrefour advanced 2.9 percent.

Other strategists took a more sanguine near-term view of equity markets, underpinned this year by a strengthening U.S. economy and loose monetary policy by central banks around the world.

Data on Thursday pointed to a pick-up in the U.S. labour market recovery, with the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly falling last week.

"It isn't true that everything is just momentum and sentiment. There is positive real data backing up some of the moves," said Frances Hudson, global thematic strategist at Standard Life Investments, which manages 167.7 billion pounds ($252 billion).

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