* FTSEurofirst 300 index finishes 0.8 pct higher
* Weaker euro against dollar boosts automakers
* ITV, Standard Chartered shares advance
By Atul Prakash
LONDON, March 4 (Reuters) - European shares rallied in late trading on Wednesday and closed just below multi-year highs, with export-oriented stocks getting a boost following a sharp decline in the euro to an 11-1/2-year low against the dollar after U.S. services data.
The dollar rose after the Institute for Supply Management said its services index rose to 56.9 in February against 56.5 predicted in a Reuters poll. The U.S. currency also strengthened against the euro ahead of the launch of quantitative easing by the European Central Bank.
“European markets received an additional boost from an encouraging U.S. services PMI report. Generally a good economic number out of the U.S. is good for the dollar and the resultant euro weakness is helping to boost the shares of European car makers, which are particularly sensitive to currency moves,” Robert Parkes, director of equity strategy at HSBC Bank, said.
The STOXX Europe 600 Auto and Auto Parts index rose 1.8 percent, the top sectoral gainer, helping the broader STOXX 600 index to advance 0.8 percent.
The STOXX 600 has risen 14 percent so far in 2015, its strongest start to the year since the index was created in late 1986 and the best performance among all asset classes.
The FTSEurofirst 300 index of top European shares ended 0.8 percent higher at 1,557.03 points to close near this week’s seven-year high of 1,567.68.
Corporate news helped some companies to post significant gains. British broadcaster ITV rose 5.7 percent, the top gainer in the FTSEurofirst 300 index, after the group said it planned to return 250 million pounds ($385 million) to shareholders via a special dividend.
Standard Chartered gained 5.1 percent after saying it aimed to cut $1.8 billion in costs over three years and shrink its loan book in an effort to quell concerns about its capital strength.
“The market was prepared for the worst, and with cost cuts and the dividend held, it would seem that investors have been pleasantly surprised by today’s numbers,” Lewis Sturdy, dealer at London Capital Group, said.
But Precious metals miner Fresnillo fell 8.5 percent after posting a 40 percent drop in full-year pretax profit, hurt by falling gold and silver prices.
Norsk Hydro fell 6.5 percent on some cautious broker comments, with Goldman Sachs removing it from its conviction list and Bank of America ML cutting it to “underperform” from “outperform”. (Editing by Andrew Heavens)