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Europe struggles for direction


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LONDON, England (CNN) -- European markets struggled to find direction in mid-afternoon trading on Thursday as war jitters and poor earnings conspired to undermine investor confidence.

London's FTSE 100 inched up 0.3 percent to 3,603.8 and Frankfurt's electronically traded Xetra Dax also added 0.3 percent to 2,458.1 -- both indexes had been in negative territory during the morning session.

But the CAC 40 blue chip index in Paris hovered around the five-year closing lows hit on Wednesday; the index was little changed at 2,658.01.

The pan-European FTSE Eurotop 300, a broader index of the region's largest stocks, was down 0.1 percent at fresh six-year lows of 746.89.

Swiss engineering company ABB sank 9 percent to 2.64 Swiss francs in Zurich after posting a record 2002 loss. (Full story)

Nestle, the world's biggest food company, dropped 3 percent to 260 Swiss francs after it failed to meet its own sales growth target. (Full story)

Bernd Mayer, a European strategist at Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, told Reuters that investors had lost faith in stocks, after a number of false dawns that earnings and outlook were improving.

"The investors are staying on the sidelines and not willing to price in any hope into the market any longer. They just want to see things get better first before buying," Mayer said.

Technology stocks were among the worst performers. Nokia, the world's biggest mobile phone maker, slid 2.6 percent to 11.71 euros and Swedish rival Ericsson lost 2.7 percent to 5.35 Swedish crowns.

SAP (FSAP), Europe's biggest software company, slid 4.7 percent to 77.23 euros on speculation the company may issue a profit warning. The company denied the rumors.

HVB Group (FHVB), Germany's second-largest bank, sank 11 percent to 8.56 euros after a report said it planned a mandatory convertible bond of several billion euros to prop up its capital base.

A banking source told Reuters that HVB had no such plans, and Germany's financial watchdog BaFin said it saw no regulatory need for HVB to raise fresh cash.

Markets were also subdued by a weaker finish on Wall Street as concerns over a war with Iraq continued to eat away at investor sentiment. The United Nations' chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said on Wednesday Iraq had still not made a "fundamental decision'' to disarm despite recent signs of increased co-operation. (Full story)

Axa (PEX), Europe's second-largest insurer, rose 2.2 percent to 10.51 euros after posting an 82 percent rise in 2002 net profit, well above analysts' expectations. (Full story)

The AEX index in Amsterdam fell 0.8 percent and Milan's MIB30 index also dropped also 0.7 percent, while the SMI in Zurich slipped 1 percent.

In the U.S. on Wednesday, stocks sank for the second time in three sessions, hurt by worries about Iraq, weaker-than-expected sales from Hewlett-Packard and soaring oil prices.

The Nasdaq composite dipped 1.9 percent, or 25.30 points, to 1303.68, while the Dow Jones industrial average slid 1.3 percent, or 102.52 points, to 7806.98 and the S&P 500 index also lost 1.3 percent, or 11.02 points, to 827.55.


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