Earnings, Yellen help Europe shares end higher

European equities rallied on Thursday, closing nearly 1 percent higher as investors reacted to a raft of corporate earnings and fresh economic data.

Earnings mixed


The pan-European Euro Stoxx 600 Index finished around 0.9 percent higher, after better-than-expected Chinese factory activity and dovish comments from U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, who addressed Congress this week.

The Food and Beverage sector rallied on Thursday to finish over 2 percent higher, led by Belgian beverage and brewing company AB Inbev which announced a sharply higher dividend and a $1 billion buyback. The world's largest brewer saw its shares rally around 3 percent. Heineken shares also traded over 2.6 percent higher.

Also at the top of benchmarks, hearing-aid maker William Demant surged 4.8 percent with the firm reporting better-than-excepted operating profit for 2014.

Meanwhile, media stocks under performed the wider benchmarks and helped offset the gains in other sectors. Publishing firm Reed Elsevier fell almost 5 percent despite its full-year results matching market expectations. Shares of the Anglo-Dutch multinational have seen a strong rally since the start of the year.

"Reed Elsevier is in last place after its earnings and news of a restructuring wasn't all that well received, Even the prospect of a share buyback scheme is failing to generate much support there," Tony Cross, a market analyst at brokerage Trustnet Direct, said in a morning note.


On the data front, the latest gross domestic product (GDP) data from Spain confirmed that the country grew 2 percent year-on-year in the last quarter. In the U.K., year-on-year GDP was confirmed at 2.7 percent and the German unemployment rate also stayed at a record low in February.

In Asia, Japanese shares outperformed the region by reaching a new multiyear high, but the rest of Asia traded mixed on Thursday, following a flat finish on Wall Street Wednesday amid firming oil prices, housing data and debate over Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's congressional testimony.

Concluding a two-day series of testimonies to various committees within U.S. Congress, Yellen said there would be no interest rate hike for "at least the next couple of FOMC meetings." She said an eye would be kept on the improving jobs picture and inflation. U.S. weekly jobless claims will be in focus for investors in the day ahead.

U.S. stocks reversed to trade mostly higher on Thursday, as investors digested mixed economic data and declines in oil.

The Dow Jones industrial average flirted with positive territory, led by Cisco and McDonald's, despite Exxon Mobil, Chevron and Caterpillar each declining more than one percent.

Energy also fell more than 1 percent as the greatest decliner in the S&P 500.

Standard Chartered rises

In other news, the European Central Bank (ECB) is willing to again accept Greek bonds for funding if Athens keeps to reform pledges, ECB President Mario Draghi told the European Parliament on Wednesday, Reuters reported.

Elsewhere, the European Commission has given France until 2017 to get its budget deficit below an EU-imposed limit, despite the country missing a second deadline to puts its finances in order, Reuters reported. As well as deciding not to give France a fine for not meeting budget targets, the commission also decided against penalizing Italy and Belgium.

Ukraine will be in focus Thursday after mixed messages from the country's central bank amid currency turmoil. Ukraine's central bank reversed a ban that had prohibited most currency trading, less than 24 hours after it was introduced. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said late Wednesday that it was ready to help the country with its foreign currency issues, Reuters reported.

Elsewhere, Standard Chartered shares rose over 5 percent as the investment bank announced that Bill Winters will take over form Peter Sands as CEO.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld