PARIS, Jan 23 (Reuters) - European shares inched higher on Wednesday, with a key index moving back towards a near two-year high hit recently, although a bout of profit taking on banking and insurance shares limited the market's rise.
Corporate results were in the spotlight, with shares of Unilever gaining 3.1 percent after the consumer-goods giant posted better-than-expected sales while Novartis added 4.1 percent after the Swiss pharmaceuticals group unveiled a reassuring sales growth forecast.
The FTSEurofirst 300 index of top European shares provisionally closed 0.2 percent higher at 1,168.00 points, just a few points below a peak of 1,170.29 points hit two weeks ago, a level not seen since early 2011.
However, the euro zone's blue chip Euro STOXX 50 index fell 0.3 percent to 2,709.83 points, dragged lower by falling shares of financial institutions after lofty gains so far this year.
Societe Generale dropped 3.5 percent, Banco Popolare fell 4.1 percent and Aegon lost 2.2 percent. Despite the day's losses, the STOXX euro zone banking index is still up 10 percent in 2013, by far the best sector performance.
"The newsflow on the political and macro side is very thin, so there's a bit of hesitation to chase the market higher and we're seeing some rotation between sectors," Saxo Banque senior sales trader Alexandre Baradez said.
"We need some kind of big positive catalyst, better-than-expected Apple results for instance, or good macro data."
U.S. tech major Apple is set to report quarterly results later on Wednesday.