European Stocks Rise to 4 1/2-Year High as Leaders Meet

European stocks advanced to a 4 1/2-year high as the region’s policy makers gathered for a two-day summit in Brussels and U.S. jobless-benefit claims fell to the lowest level in almost two months.

Assicurazioni Generali SpA rallied the most in almost three years after Italy’s biggest insurer reported increased operating profit. HeidelbergCement AG climbed to the highest since 2008 as debt declined more than estimated. Deutsche Lufthansa AG rose 3.6 percent as Europe’s second-largest airline agreed to buy aircraft from Airbus SAS.

The Stoxx Europe 600 Index climbed 1.1 percent to 298.52 at the close of trading, the highest level since June 2008. The benchmark measure has risen 6.7 percent this year as data on U.S. payrolls and Chinese exports bolstered confidence in the global economic recovery and central banks around the world continued stimulus measures.

“Markets are grinding higher, pushed by better-than-expected U.S. data resisting fiscal headwinds,” said Witold Bahrke, who helps oversee $55 billion as senior strategist at PFA Pension A/S in Copenhagen. “On the other hand, anxiety is growing steadily, primarily regarding euro-zone developments. Nobody is expecting anything concrete from the summit, but there is the potential for surprises, for example on Cyprus.”

European Summit

European leaders gathered for a two-day summit today, with euro-area finance ministers meeting separately tomorrow to discuss a bailout for Cyprus. Policy makers may loosen austerity measures as the recession and mounting unemployment in southern Europe overtake the debt crisis as the region’s biggest headache.

In the U.S., applications for jobless benefits dropped by 10,000 to 332,000 in the week ended March 9 from a revised 342,000 the previous period, Labor Department figures showed today. Economists had forecast 350,000 claims, according to the median of 49 estimates in a Bloomberg survey.

The number of shares changing hands in Stoxx 600 companies was 5.9 percent higher than the 30-day average today, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

National benchmark indexes climbed in 15 of the 18 western European markets. The U.K.’s FTSE 100 rose 0.7 percent and Germany’s DAX added 1.1 percent. France’s CAC 40 rallied 0.9 percent to the highest since July 2011.

Generali surged 9.4 percent to 13.33 euros, the biggest jump since May 2010. The insurer said fourth-quarter operating profit increased 12 percent from a year earlier to 928 million euros ($1.2 billion), boosted by the non-life insurance business.

HeidelbergCement Debt

HeidelbergCement advanced 3 percent to 56.22 euros, the highest price since October 2008. The German cement maker said debt declined more than expected last year as improved earnings covered dividends and repayments. Borrowings fell 700 million euros to 7 billion euros, while analysts had predicted 7.4 billion euros.

Lufthansa rose 56 cents to 16.05 euros. The company agreed to renew its short-haul fleet with 100 mostly fuel-efficient aircraft from Airbus, as the airline seeks to cut kerosene costs that constitute its single biggest expense.

Booker Group Plc, Britain’s biggest food wholesaler, jumped 7.8 percent to 125 pence, the highest price in seven years, after the U.K. Competition Commission provisionally approved its acquisition of Makro Holding Ltd.

Aggreko Plc added 6.9 percent to 1,965 pence as the world’s largest provider of mobile power supplies won a contract in Mozambique and Namibia.

France Telecom

France Telecom SA and Telefonica SA rose 6.6 percent to 8.47 euros and 4 percent to 11.50 euros, respectively. A gauge of telecommunication companies was the best performer among the 19 industry groups in the Stoxx 600, surging 2.8 percent for the biggest jump since November 2011.

K+S AG gained 1.9 percent to 36.73 euros after Europe’s largest potash maker predicted earnings and revenue will increase this year.

OC Oerlikon Corp. fell 2 percent to 12.40 Swiss francs, paring an earlier loss of as much as 4.4 percent. The world’s largest maker of textile machinery will appoint a new chief executive officer to replace Michael Buscher, who led the company through a reorganization since joining in 2010.

Chief Financial Officer Juerg Fedier will act as interim CEO, the Pfaeffikon, Switzerland-based company said, without giving any reason for the switch.

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