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European Stocks Struggle for Direction Ahead of ECB Meeting

Stocks in this article: MFC BAFYY BFLBY

LONDON ( The Deal) -- European stocks were looking for direction on Thursday, with investors eagerly awaiting the European Central Bank's monetary policy meeting in Frankfurt and any comments on the Russia-Ukraine conflict from NATO leaders meeting in Wales. Asian indices were mostly down. 

In London, the FTSE 100 was up 0.12% at 6,881.91, while in Frankfurt the DAX shed 0.59% to 9,569.52. In France, the CAC 40 retreated 0.26% to 4,410.59. 

While the ECB is expected to leave interest rates untouched, ECB President Mario Draghi may use his post-meeting press appearance to shed light on where rates might be headed in the medium term and the economy and the ECB's thinking on quantitative easing. 

Ahead of the meeting, positive news from Germany's Economy Ministry indicated the recovery in Europe's largest economy is gathering pace. Factory orders rose a seasonally adjusted 4.6% in July, the biggest jump since June 2013 and well above the 1.5% economists had predicted in a Bloomberg News poll. 

The ECB is due to announce its interest rates decision at around 1:45 Frankfurt time. In the U.K., the Bank of England is expected to keep interest rates at 0.5%, where they've been since March 2009, when it announces its decision around noon London time. 

Meanwhile in Wales, NATO leaders kicked off a two-day summit expected to discuss a beefed-up military presence to limit the Russian threat to Ukraine. 

As for individual stocks, two of Europe's biggest builders were pulled in different directions.  

In Frankfurt, Bilfinger  (BFLBY) slumped 10.51% to 53.20 euros after the Mannheim-based construction and services company issued its third consecutive profit warning in as many months. 

Citing a difficult market situation in the energy and European oil and gas sectors, the company said that despite an expected "substantial" increase in second-half earnings over the first six months, the Ebita margin for 2014 will drop below last year's figure of 5.8%.

Analyst Ingbert Faust at Equinet Bank in Frankfurt said in a research note that the latest warning is a "major surprise," since Bilfinger was historically known for conservative accounting and took defensive measures in case of unexpected losses. 

But in London, British builder Balfour Beatty  (BAFYY) got a slight boost after announcing plans to sell its professional services division, Parsons Brinckerhoff, to Canadian engineering company WSP Global for $1.24 billion in cash. The stock was up 0.41% at 242.10 pence. 

The agreement comes five years after Balfour Beatty bought the business for $626 million, and a few weeks after Balfour Beatty successfully fended off a takeover from domestic rival Carillion. Those talks disintegrated when Carillion tried to force Balfour Beatty to hold onto Parsons Brinckerhoff. 

In London, insurer Standard Life was also up on deal news. The stock rose 7.9% for 416.60 pence after the company announced a surprise agreement sell its Canadian operators to Montreal-based Manulife Financial  (MFC - Get Report) for about C$4 billion ($3.7 billion).

The seller said the deal will allow it to increase its focus on the fast-growing fee business, and promised to return GBP 1.75 billion ($2.88 billion) to shareholders when the deal is completed, expected in the first quarter of 2015. 

Asian stocks were mostly in the red. In Tokyo, the Nikkei fell 0.33% to 15,676, , while in Hong Kong the Hang Seng lost 0.08% to 25,297.92. 

Later Thursday, all eyes will be on the U.S. for fresh signs that the recovery in the world's largest economy is gathering pace. 

A report from the ADP , due out at around 8:15 EDT is expected to show that U.S. private-sector companies added anywhere between 220,000 and 230,000 new jobs in August. Then on Friday, the U.S. Department of Labor is due to release its monthly jobs report for August.

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