European shares at near 3-week lows on U.S. stimulus worries

Reuters

* FTSEurofirst 300 down 1.2 pct

* Miners fall as U.S. data puts focus on taper

* Airlines down on bird flu concerns

By Tricia Wright

LONDON, Dec 3 (Reuters) - European stocks fell on Tuesday,suffering their biggest falls since August after recent robustU.S. data raised concern that the Federal Reserve will cut itsequity-friendly stimulus sooner rather than later.

The FTSEurofirst 300 was down 1.2 percent at1,285.79 points by 1556 GMT in a broad-based sell-off, tradingat its lowest levels in nearly three weeks. This left it 2.4percent shy of a 5-1/2 year high of 1,316.42 hit early November.

The sell-off represented a wipeout of about 50 billion euros($67.78 billion) in market capitalisation for euro zonebenchmarks DAX, CAC-40, IBEX and FTSEMIB combined.

Miners fell, tracking metals prices lower, withtraders blaming stronger-than-expected U.S. manufacturing andconstruction spending data on Monday for the weakness.

A robust economy is normally good for equities, but therecent improving outlook could lead to an early reduction in theU.S. Federal Reserve's bond-buying programme, which hassupported the rally in equities.

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."

European airlines came under pressure after the first caseof deadly bird flu in Hong Kong fanned concern that the virus iscontinuing to spread beyond mainland China's borders.

Air France-KLM fell 2.1 percent and Germany'sLufthansa was off 3.6 percent.

There was profit-taking in autos stocks, down 2.1percent, among the worst-hit sectors. They have risen by arounda third in 2013, making them the best performers.

Still, analysts see scope for more gains. JPMorgan isbullish on European autos in 2014 as it expects that a recoveryin the European, Chinese and North American car markets willsupport higher earnings.

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