European shares fell slightly on Wednesday in choppy trade as investors adjusted positions for the end of a strong quarter, with some strategists seeing little in the way of near-term catalysts to keep the rally alive.
Andrew Milligan, head of global strategy at Standard Life Investments, said equities could be in consolidation phase, with a degree of good news about the U.S. economy priced in, while worries over Spain and a hard landing in China loom large.
He highlighted that there has not been much flow out of bonds, which could prove a positive for equities but, on the other hand, the flows they have seen show that investors are really quite cautious -- they are moving very slowly.
We could certainly see (investors) allocating into equities if they felt the profits outlook was becoming noticeably better and that there was another strong rally in equity markets into 2013, for example, that they could position themselves for.
The pan-European FTSEurofirst 300 was down 1.21 points, or 0.1 percent, at 1,082.33 by 1149 GMT, having shed 0.5 percent in the previous session after Monday's 0.9-percent bounce on speculation of more Federal Reserve monetary easing.
The FTSEurofirst index has jumped about 8 percent in the year to date, and is on track to record its best first-quarter since 1998.
The performance of equity markets has been phenomenal this quarter, which makes me believe that upside will be limited in the next few days, said Lex van Dam, hedge fund manager at Hampstead Capital, which manages $500 million of assets.
Banks came under pressure, and defensive pharma stocks attracted buyers, after a downwards revision to UK fourth-quarter 2011 GDP hurt risk appetite, although some commentators were prompted to start discussing more quantitative easing.
If there is any hint that the recovery is faltering then the Bank of England will be right on top of it with more QE, said David Miller, partner at Cheviot which has assets under management of about 3.5 billion pounds ($5.59 billion).
There was a rally in assets likely to benefit from a new bout of QE earlier on in the week, showing that the markets are reacting to these messages from the (central) banks.
Insurers also came under the cosh, albeit hampered by stocks trading ex-dividend, as in the case of both RSA Insurance and Prudential.
News of an expensive year for the Lloyd's of London insurance market, which absorbed record claims from natural catastrophes including Japan's Tohoku earthquake and floods in Thailand, hit sentiment surrounding the sector.
Oil major Total shed 1.4 percent, continuing its descent since Tuesday when it warned it could take six months to halt the flow of a gas leak at its Elgin platform in the North Sea.
The French firm said on Wednesday it was still trying to identify the cause of the leak, and that it is a question of days to find a solution, which is still being evaluated.
The stock broke below its 200-day moving average in early trade, sending a strong bearish technical signal.
People still have in mind the BP saga. We don't know how this one will turn out, so it's better to get out of this stock now, or go 'short' if you're adventurous, a Paris-based trader said.
Total's shares are in the crosshairs of short sellers, featuring among the most shorted stocks across Europe, according to Data Explorers.