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European shares start 2019 shakily as China, EU figures deepen gloom

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The German share price index DAX graph at the stock exchange in Frankfurt

The German share price index DAX graph is pictured at the stock exchange in Frankfurt, Germany, January 2, 2019. REUTERS/Staff

By Julien Ponthus and Josephine Mason

LONDON (Reuters) - European shares lost further ground in their first trading day of 2019 on Wednesday as fears about global growth, trade wars and political instability rolled over into the new year while investors sought safety in stocks considered less risky.

While sentiment had already been hit by disappointing data from China, fresh surveys showed Euro zone manufacturing activity barely expanded at the end of 2018 in a broad-based slowdown.

Euro zone stocks (.STOXXE) ended down just 0.3 percent and the pan European STOXX 600 (.STOXX) closed 0.2 percent lower after trimming earlier heavy losses as Wall Street turned positive.

Paris (.FCHI) notched up the biggest drop, down 1 percent, while Frankfurt, Madrid and Milan all managed to move back into positive territory by the close.

Turnover on the STOXX 600 was extremely low, though - with just 75 percent of the 90-day average daily volume traded - as many investors remained on holiday.

"Investors are still cautious about the outlook for the second largest economy in the world," said David Madden, market analyst at CMC Markets UK.

"China has been undergoing an economic slowdown for years, and the manufacturing report underlined the point that the second largest economy in the world is cooling."

Some analysts drew comfort from the tentative turnaround in market fortunes on the day as investors tried to put 2018 - which saw the worst stock market performance in a decade - behind them.

"Bruised by the volatility of Q4 2018, investors aren't yet grabbing the chance to buy the dip with both hands, but it is at least encouraging to see a continuation of the move higher instead of the relentless selling of the past few weeks," said IG chief market analyst Chris Beauchamp.

Still, the laggards of 2018 took some of the biggest hits. Miners, autos and banks fell, and investors dumped the cyclical parts of the market most exposed to a slowing global economy.

The basic resources sector (.SXPP) was the weakest performer, dropping 1.8 percent, while autos and parts stocks fell 1.5 percent.

Among individual moves, medical equipment maker Gerresheimer (GXIG.DE) dropped 5.8 percent to its lowest since July 2015 after JP Morgan cut its rating on the stock to "underweight", according to traders.

Bargain hunting in crude futures helped heavyweight oil stocks (.SXEP) reverse earlier losses to rise 1.1 percent on the day, while defensive stocks popular in times of economic strife - healthcare, utilities and telecom - were in favour.

In Italy, market watchdog Consob suspended trading in shares of Banca Carige (CRGI.MI) while the European Central Bank appointed temporary administrators in a bid to save the struggling lender after it failed to raise capital late last year.

The Italian banking sector <.FTIT8300> was down 1.1 percent.

(Reporting by Julien Ponthus, Helen Reid and Josephine Mason; Editing by Mark Heinrich)