LONDON ( The Deal) -- European markets drifted lower in early trading Thursday, as the world waited for the publication of the latest minutes from the U.S. Federal Reserve. It's still all about the timing of the Fed's taper -- outgoing Chairman Ben Bernanke gave a speech last night confirming that quantitative easing could be reduced if the jobs market keeps improving, but said nothing about when that might happen. Will the minutes give a hint? The markets are watching that space.

Other U.S. news is also out this morning -- consumer price inflation, retail sales and existing home sales data for October could also give direction to European markets as they assess the way the world's largest economy is going.

Meanwhile in London, the minutes of the Bank of England's November meeting suggest that even if unemployment does fall to 7% earlier than previously expected, the central bank will be in no hurry to raise interest rates, so long as inflationary pressures remain under control

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One of the biggest risers in the London market this morning was British multi-utility Telecom Plus, which said it had agreed to buy part of German utility giant RWE's British gas and electricity business, npower, in a $350 million deal which could help it weaken the grip of the so-called Big Six energy suppliers in the U.K. market and boost competition. Telecom Plus's stock was up over 14% by mid-morning at 1,720 pence a share.

London's FTSE 100 was down 0.24% at 6,681.82. In Frankfurt, the DAX was down marginally at 9,187.29 and in Paris the CAC40 was also down less than 0.1% at 4,268.51.

In Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 closed down 0.33% at 15,076.08, despite a rise in the share price of electronic equipment maker Sharp on unconfirmed reports that it is considering a tie-up with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) - Get Report for its photocopier business. Japan's trade gap has widened, despite an unexpectedly strong rise in exports in October, as imports have also soared. The weaker yen makes exports more competitive, but puts up the price of imported oil.

In Korea, Samsung lost 1.3% as investors awaited a U.S. court decision on how much the South Korean handset maker should pay Apple (AAPL) - Get Report for patent infringement, but the market closed up 0.7% at 2,017.

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng was up slightly at 23,700.86.