EUROPEAN shares edged higher this morning, with heavyweight miners and exporters supported by stronger-than-expected Chinese data, but concerns about the upcoming corporate earnings season kept key indexes below recent multi-month highs.
Chinese retail sales and industrial output rose more than expected in December, helping fourth-quarter economic growth to accelerate for the first time in two years.
The better performance from the world's top metals consumer followed on from stronger US jobs and housing data the previous session and helped boost miners, with the basic resources sector up 0.3pc.
"We've got good numbers out of China, we had some good number out of US yesterday ... The general sentiment is pretty good," said Neil Marsh, strategist at Newedge.
"There will probably be some phases of consolidation as we go forward, but the markets remain pretty resilient," Marsh added. "More people are putting their cash to work now in riskier assets, like equities, and there is no sign of that stopping at the minute."
The FTEurofirst 300 was steady at 1,165.80 points by 0846 GMT, in sight of a two-year high of 1,170.29 set last week. The EuroSTOXX 50 added 0.3pc to 2,724.71, eyeing its recent 18-month peak.
But traders said the market was likely to struggle to break past those highs ahead of the weekend, with investors concerned about the European fourth-quarter earnings season which kicks off in earnest on Monday.
"What we need (to push higher) is strong results from companies, and expectations are quite low," said Anita Paluch, sales trader at Gekko Capital Markets.
European companies are expected to report a 1pc year-on-year drop in earnings, on average, against forecast for 2.1pc for US peers, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine.
On the flip side, low expectations could make it easier for European companies to deliver positive surprises.
French car maker Renault added 2.3pc after pledging a return to sales growth this year.
Investors are meanwhile set to lose a big slice of downside protection with the expiry of January options, which could leave the market more vulnerable in case of any selloff. Maturing puts - which give investors the right to sell the EuroSTOXX 50 at a pre-set price - outnumber call bets by some 68pc.
With the euro zone blue chip index up around 3pc in the past month, the vast majority of the puts will expire worthless, in line with the trend seen since mid-2012.
For investors still wishing to protect their holdings but unwilling to spend more money to do so, strategists at BNP Paribas recommend buying an at-the-money February put on EuroSTOXX 50 and selling the equivalent contract on US S&P 500 or on the German DAX, where they expect economic growth - and thus corporate earnings - to hold up better.