Europe stocks rally after Yellen comments; FTSE hits record
* FTSEurofirst 300 ends up 0.5 pct, touches fresh 7-year high * FTSE 100 hits record high above 1999 peak * Greek bank shares surge on expectation of bailout extension * Europe enjoys best earnings season in nearly four years By Blaise Robinson PARIS, Feb 24 (Reuters) - European stocks rallied on Tuesday, with both Britain's FTSE 100 and Germany's DAX hitting record highs, after U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said it was likely to be several months before the Fed raises interest rates. Greek stocks were the top gainers after Athens delivered a list of economic reforms to the euro zone that it hopes will secure a four-month extension of its financial lifeline. Shares in National Bank of Greece, Alpha Bank , Bank of Piraeus and Eurobank surged 16-20 percent. Despite its recent rebound, the Greek banking sector remains below the level it traded at before last month's election victory by the anti-austerity Syriza party. The sector is still down 50 percent from February 2014, reducing the combined market value of Greece's top four banks to 18.5 billion euros ($20.9 billion), about a fifth of the value of Spain's Banco Santander, the euro zone's biggest bank. The FTSEurofirst 300 index of top European shares ended 0.5 percent higher at 1,543.29 points, a level not seen since late 2007. Britain's FTSE 100 ended 0.5 percent higher after hitting a record high of 6,958.89, surpassing its previous all-time high reached in late 1999. In a subtle shift of emphasis that helps lay the groundwork for the Fed's first rate hike since 2006, Yellen said its policy-setting committee was considering interest rate hikes "on a meeting by meeting basis". She added that an increase was not likely for at least the next couple of meetings. "It was a reassuring message from Yellen. The Fed will take its time before starting to raise rates, given the low inflation. So no change before the summer," Saxo Bank trader Pierre Martin said. "Investors are loving it: the U.S. economy is in good shape, very low unemployment, and rock-bottom interest rates. These are pretty powerful catalysts for the market." Among the top gainers on Tuesday in Europe, Dutch tech ASML rose 3.6 percent after saying it had passed a key performance milestone. Mining giant BHP Billiton surged 6.2 percent, driving a sector rally, after a smaller-than-expected drop in half-year profit. Overall, fourth-quarter earnings are expected to grow by 19.5 percent, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S, which would be Europe's best earnings season since mid-2011 after three years of stagnating earnings. European profits overall are still 30 percent below their peak of 2008, however, while U.S. corporate profits have rebounded to 30 percent above their 2008 peak, Thomson Reuters Datastream data shows. "This gap is the biggest we've ever seen by a huge margin. Now it's going to start closing," said Jonathan Bell, chief investment officer at Stanhope Capital, which oversees $9 billion in assets. "There's scope for a reasonable rebound in European earnings, which is one of the reasons why we're 'overweight' Europe equities." Europe bourses in 2015: link.reuters.com/pap87v Asset performance in 2015: link.reuters.com/gap87v Today's European research round-up (Editing by Catherine Evans)
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