By Sara Sjolin, MarketWatch
LONDON (MarketWatch) -- European stocks saw steep losses on Thursday, as euro-zone data disappointed a day after minutes from the U.S. Federal Reserve's latest meeting illustrated a split over the central bank's monetary-easing program.
The Stoxx Europe 600 index dropped 1.2% to 285.58, with banks and mining firms posting some of the biggest losses.
"We have quite a few triggers for nervousness coming through today. You had a rise in the markets for a while and people were becoming more and more nervous and looking for the first crack, " said Justin Urquhart Stewart, co-founder of Seven Investment Management.
"Nothing fundamentally has changed. On the longer term, the economy is still healing, but markets were getting ahead of themselves and waiting for economic data to back it up. We had a wave of everyone thinking the glass was half full, but now that perception has changed," he said.
Shares of heavyweight miner BHP Billiton PLC (>> BHP Billiton Limited) shaved off 3.3%, after Citigroup cut the firm to neutral from buy, saying that positive catalysts such as capital-expenditure cuts and cost reductions are now priced in.
Shares of AXA SA gave up 3.1%, as the insurance firm reported a drop in 2012 profit.
Investors further trained their attention on the U.S., where minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee's January meeting released late Wednesday showed some members expressed concerns about the bank's $85 billion monthly asset purchases. Several members said the central bank should prepare to vary the pace of the quantitative-easing plan depending on the outlook. .
Meanwhile on Thursday, jobless claims data fleshed out that 20,000 more americans applied for unemployment benefits last week to a seasonally adjusted 362,000. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch forecast claims to rise to 351,000 from a revised 342,000 in the prior week.
U.S. stocks extended Wednesday's steep losses and moved lower.
"We can expect markets to be a little bit more volatile from here. People will be nervous until they get clarification on the U.S. deficit, the Italian election, growth signals from Germany and if the U.K. will lose its triple-A credit rating," Urquhart Stewart said.
Italian stocks plummeted ahead of general elections this weekend, with markets worried a new government would end the country's current reformist drive. The FTSE MIB index slid 2.6% to 16,094.84, with shares of UniCredit SpA down 4%.
Elsewhere in Europe, preliminary readings of purchasing managers' indexes from the major economies stole the limelight. The preliminary composite purchasing-managers' index, or PMI, for the euro zone slumped to a two-month low of 47.3 in February, indicating the region's downturn steepened. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had forecast a February reading of 48.5. .
The manufacturing PMI for Germany rose to 50.1, a 12-month high, while the same reading for France climbed to 43.6, marking a 2-month high. The French reading, however, missed expectations. A reading above 50 indicates expansion.
Germany's DAX 30 index sank 1.8% to 7,591.08, with Deutsche Bank AG (>> Deutsche Bank AG (USA)) down 3.7% and Commerzbank AG off 2.9%.
In France, Société Générale SA dropped 4.1%. The CAC 40 index erased 1.9% to 3,641.23.
U.K.'s FTSE 100 index lost 1.6% to 6,292.00. Shares of HSBC Holdings PLC (>> HSBC Holdings plc) fell 1.9%.
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