European shares hit 6-week closing low on U.S. stimulus worries


* FTSEurofirst 300 off 1.5 pct, cyclical stocks weigh

* Some 50 bln euros wiped off euro zone benchmarks

* Airlines down on bird flu concerns

By Tricia Wright

LONDON, Dec 3 (Reuters) - European stocks dropped onTuesday, suffering their biggest falls since August after recentrobust U.S. data raised concern that the Federal Reserve willcut its equity-friendly stimulus sooner rather than later.

The FTSEurofirst 300 ended down 1.5 percent at1,280.85 points, its lowest closing level since Oct. 23, and itsmost severe one-day percentage drop since Aug. 27. This left it2.8 percent shy of a 5-1/2 year high of 1,316.42 hit in earlyNovember.

The broad-based sell-off wiped out more than 50 billioneuros ($67.78 billion) in market capitalisation for euro zonebenchmark indexes - Germany's DAX, France's CAC-40, Spain's IBEX and Italy's FTSE MIB combined.

Cyclical sectors were the biggest losers. Traders blamedstronger than expected U.S. manufacturing and constructionspending data on Monday for the broad market weakness.

A robust economy is normally good for equities, but therecent improving outlook could lead to an early reduction in theFed's bond-buying programme, which has supported the rally instocks.

Investors are aware the central bank will start reducingstimulus at some point, but question marks remain about thetimetable for doing so. Most expect the announcement in March.

The Fed has said it will begin to scale back its programmewhen certain economic data releases meet its targets, withFriday's November jobs report expected to provide some clues.

"I think tapering is not going to happen in December; firstof all I'm not so sure (Friday's) figure will be so strong,"said Philippe Gijsels, head of research at BNP Paribas FortisGlobal Markets.

"I would even be willing for people who want to play theshort term ... to buy into the figure because I think maybe wewill have a rally afterwards."

Airlines came under pressure after the first human case ofH7N9 bird flu in Hong Kong fanned concern that the virus iscontinuing to spread beyond mainland China's borders.

Air France-KLM fell 4.2 percent and Germany'sLufthansa was down 3.8 percent.

There was profit-taking in autos, off 2.3 percent.They have risen by a third in 2013, making them the bestperformers.

Still, analysts see scope for more gains. JPMorgan isbullish on the sector for 2014 as it expects a recovery in theEuropean, Chinese and North American car markets will supporthigher earnings.

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