European equities mixed ahead of ECB meeting

Europe's main stock markets fell back Wednesday from gains posted in early trading to close with mixed results as London's FTSE 100 index of leading companies slipped by a slight 0.07 percent to 6,427.64 points.

The DAX 30 gained 0.62 percent in Frankfurt to a more than five-year high of 7,919.33 points however, while in Paris the CAC 40 lost 0.35 percent to 3,773.76 points as markets awaited a monthly rate-setting meeting by the European Central Bank (ECB) on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, dealers had taken their cue from Wall Street, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average posted another record intra-day level in midday trades on confidence underpinned by ongoing monetary easing measures in Japan, Europe and the United States.

The Dow had extended a record-breaking run after setting an all-time high on Tuesday by adding another 0.16 percent to 14,277.13 points.

The broader S&P 500 slipped meanwhile by a very modest 0.02 percent, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite was down by 0.13 percent.

"It had been feared that European markets would have lost confidence in early trading without the guiding hand of US markets," noted Alastair McCaig, an IG analyst.

"These fears were quickly erased as the FTSE opened almost 20 points up and has remained in positive territory all day, confirming the current 'risk on' mentality," he added.

In foreign exchange activity, the euro dropped to $1.2991 from $1.3047 late on Tuesday in New York. Gold prices eased to $1,574.00 an ounce on the London Bullion Market from $1,579.75.

Elsewhere, Madrid's IBEX 35 shares index gave up 0.76 percent and Milan's FTSE MIB was off by 0.47 percent amid ongoing Italian political uncertainty in the wake of last week's deadlocked elections.

Eurozone traders tidied up their positions ahead of a European Central Bank meeting on Thursday in Frankfurt, at which ECB policymakers were expected to keep the bank's key lending rate at a record low of 0.75 percent.

"We are betting that the ECB will maintain its main rate" at that level, said Natixis analyst Johannes Gareis, though some hoped that ECB chief Mario Draghi would leave the door open for a rate cut in the coming months, at a press conference later on Thursday.

European investors were also mindful of official data which showed that the 17-nation eurozone sank further into recession in the last three months of 2012 as the debt crisis continued to exact a heavy price.

The eurozone economy shrank by 0.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012 compared with the third quarter, when it had contracted by 0.1 percent, the Eurostat data agency said, confirming initial estimates given in February.

In Asia, equities had rallied earlier on Wednesday following the record-breaking performance by shares on Wall Street a day earlier, with Tokyo and Sydney both hitting multi-year highs.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average had closed at an all-time peak on Tuesday, exactly four years after hitting bottom in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The Dow's surge, which has seen the index more than double since its trough in March 2009, came despite uncertainty in the US economy and as lawmakers battled over how to trim the government's huge deficit.

"Monetary easing measures by Japan, the US and Europe are providing excess liquidity in the market. The Dow's gains are just part of it," said Mitsushige Akino, chief fund manager at Ichiyoshi Investment Management.

In Asian trade on Wednesday, Tokyo surged 2.13 percent to end at 11,932.27 while Sydney gained 0.82 percent to 5,116.8. Both were high points not witnessed since September 2008.

Seoul was up 0.20 percent, while Hong Kong rose 0.96 percent and Shanghai added 0.90 percent in value.