Italian banks help euro zone shares hit 5-1/2 year peak
* Euro STOXX 50 index sets 5-1/2-year high, up 0.3 pct
* FTSEurofirst 300 up for 5th straight session, up 0.4 pct
* Italian banks rally on Popolare, Monte Paschi boost
By Francesco Canepa
LONDON, March 31 (Reuters) - Italian banks helped European shares rise for a fifth straight session on Monday, with a euro zone index setting a 5-1/2 year peak as the market welcomed signs that smaller lenders are boosting their capital and winning over international investors.
Sentiment was also supported by expectations of new stimulus measures from the European Central Bank, which were cemented by lower-than-expected euro zone inflation data on Monday.
Italian mid-tier banks Banco Popolare and Monte Paschi were the top risers on the STOXX Europe 600 index, surging 9.9 percent and 7.6 percent respectively compared with a 0.4 percent rise for the whole index.
Banco Popolare was boosted by reports that it had attracted foreign investors to its capital increase, while Monte Paschi saw two big Latin American funds take stakes ahead of the bank's own cash call, a sign of growing confidence in the sector and in the Italian economy from international investors.
"This round of capital increases is seen as a reinforcing element for banks in the context of a more stable economic environment," said Roberto Brasca, who manages a pan-European equity fund for AcomeA and is overweight smaller Italian lenders. Continuación...