European shares hit two-week high; retailers gain

* FTSEurofirst 300 up 0.7 pct

* BASF rises after upbeat statement

* Kingfisher, Next gain after results

* Traders say Portugal bailout priced in

* For up-to-the-minute market news, click on [STXNEWS/EU]

By Brian Gorman

LONDON, March 24 (Reuters) – European shares rose to their
highest levels in almost two weeks on Thursday, with two British
retailers leading the sector up as their profits rose, though
some caution remained over the euro zone sovereign debt crisis.

At 1153 GMT, the pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 (.FTEU3: Quote, Profile, Research)
index of top shares was up 0.7 percent at 1,120.31 points after
hitting 1,121.97, its highest level since March 11.

After falling more than 10 percent between mid-February and
mid-March on Japan’s crisis and hostilities in the Middle East,
the index is on course to gain for the fifth session in six.

Europe’s biggest home improvement retailer Kingfisher
(KGF.L: Quote, Profile, Research) and fashion chain Next (NXT.: Quote, Profile, Research) rose 8.5 and 5.9 percent
respectively after both companies met profit expectations and
hiked their dividends, a day after upbeat results from Spanish
peer Inditex (ITX.MC: Quote, Profile, Research) [ID:nLDE72M1C5] [ID:nLDE72L0HG]

Middle East tension “although disquieting is not a game
changer,” said Jeremy Batstone-Carr, strategist at Charles
Stanley. “The consensus on Japan is that rebuilding will be
supportive for the Japanese economy in the medium term, and
estimates of global growth rates don’t need adjusting too much.”

However, he added: “Gains will be limited as inflationary
pressure is everywhere and it will have an impact on corporate
profit margins. And it looks as though another domino (Portugal)
in the euro zone is going to fall.

Traders said a bailout for highly indebted Portugal was
largely priced in as its prime minister resigned following
parliament’s rejection of the government’s austerity measures.

“This turnaround (from earlier losses) in the Portuguese
stock market shows the market had already priced in this
scenario of the prime minister’s resignation and political
instability,” said Juan Dieste, trader at Orey iTrade in Lisbon,
adding that low volumes exacerbated moves.

However, political instability is likely to prevent European
Union leaders from taking tough decisions to deal with the
bloc’s debt troubles at a summit which begins on Thursday.
[ID:nLDE72M2OC]

“If Portugal is going to require some loans from the (EU)
funding facility the risk is that, if there is some difficulty
somewhere else, the facility is going to be exhausted,” said
Mike Lenhoff, chief strategist at Brewin Dolphin.

An EU official said member states were putting pressure on
Lisbon to request help, concerned that continued resistance
would endanger the stability of the 17-country euro zone, but
said no talks on a bailout had begun. [ID:nBRU011393]

Across Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 (.FTSE: Quote, Profile, Research), Germany’s DAX
(.GDAXI: Quote, Profile, Research) and France’s CAC40 (.FCHI: Quote, Profile, Research) rose between 1 and 1.7
percent.

BASF GAINS

Among other individual companies, chemicals heavyweight BASF
(BASFn.DE: Quote, Profile, Research) rose 2.8 percent after the group said it expects
first-quarter sales and core earnings to be higher this year
than last.

Cable & Wireless Worldwide (CWP.L: Quote, Profile, Research) slumped 13.7 percent to
its lowest since the company was formed in a demerger at the
start of 2010 as it downgraded expectations for core earnings
next year. [ID:nLDE72N0B3]

Traders said investors were buying companies on attractive
valuations in Europe, following a 3.1 percent dip on the index
last week.

“Markets were extremely volatile in the last few weeks and
there are sectors such as insurers and energy that look like
good buys at the moment after taking a big hit,” said Scott
Reinert, sales trader at IG Index.

Thomson Reuters Datastream showed the STOXX Europe 600
(.STOXX: Quote, Profile, Research) carrying a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 10.2,
below a 10-year average of 13.6.

U.S. data due later includes weekly jobless numbers and
durable goods orders.
(Additional reporting by Harro ten Wolde in Frankfurt and
Patricia Rua in Lisbon; Editing by Hans Peters)

European shares hit two-week high; retailers gain