European stocks drifted lower in Friday trading as investors maintained a cautious tone ahead of Sunday's presidential elections in France even as strong data from the region's second-largest economy suggests solid underlying growth.
The region-wide Stoxx 600 Europe Index, the broadest measure of share prices, was marked 0.06% lower at 11:00 BST, with Britain's FTSE 100 slipping 0.2%, or 14 points, to around 7,106 points. U.S. futures prices are pointing to a solid open on Wall Street, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average building on Thursday's gains and adding 10 points at the opening bell. The broader S&P 500, which rose 0.76% into the close yesterday, is priced to rise around 1 point at the start of trading.
Germany's DAX index held onto modest gains, rising 0.12%, while France's CAC-40 was marked 0.65% lower thanks in part to sharp drop in Danone (DANOY) , one of the country's most widely-held shares.
Danone shares fell to a one-month low Friday as disappointing sales in its yogurt division weighed on first quarter performance and offset a boost in the company's full-year earnings forecast linked to the recent takeover of WhiteWave.
Investors, however, were not impressed by Danone's increase to its guidance for recurring earnings-per-share growth for 2017, on the back of it completion of WhiteWave and priced the stock 2.1% lower by 11:30 CET in Paris at €62.36, the weakest level since March 17.
Eurozone economic activity hit a fresh six-year high this month, according to a preliminary estimate from IHS Markit, following a surge in activity in France that suggests the region's election risks are not holding back broader sentiment.
IHS Markit Economics' composite PMI reading of Eurozone growth rose to 56.7 in April, up from 56.4 in March and the highest tally in six years. Readings above 50 generally indicated economic growth. Markit's measure of manufacturing activity rose to 58.0, a 72-month high (up from 57.5 in March) while the pace of activity in the services sector jumped to 56.2 from a previous reading of 56.0. The figures indicate first quarter GDP growth of around 0.7%, Markit said, that could lead to upward revisions in full-year growth forecasts.
However, U.K. retail sales disappointed, falling much more than expected last month, the Office for National Statistics said Friday, sending the pound lower against the U.S. dollar amid concerns for the pace of consumer growth in Europe's second largest economy.
Retail sales fell 1.8% in March, the ONS said, capping the worst three month period for the sector in at least seven years after a downwardly-revised reading of -1.7% for the month of February (from -1.4%). Analysts had forecast a gain of 0.5% for March, and the weaker-than-expected reading took the pound 0.22% lower against the U.S. dollar to 1.2785 immediately following the data release.
The single currency was trading modestly weaker at 1.0702 against the U.S. dollar ahead of Sunday's vote in France, where polls remain deadlocked among the four main candidates, although most analysts expect centrist Emmanuel and far-right Marine Le Pen to make it through to the second round runoff on May 7. Tensions remain high, however, for both an upset -- given the high percentage of undecided voters -- and for the safety of those heading to the polls after a policeman was murdered on the Champs Elysees late Thursday by a lone gunman who was later shot dead by law enforcement officials.
Overnight in Asia, stocks rebounded firmly but are still on track to notch a five-day loss, with the MSCI Asia ex-Japan index rising 0.41% while Japan's Nikkei 225 added 1.03% to 18,620.75 points as investors moved into cheap stocks after the yen weakened to 1.0923 against a firmer U.S. dollar.