By Sara Sjolin
LONDON--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 1.5% to close at 284.86, 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 shaved off 4%, 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.
On a more upbeat note, shares of Swiss Re AG advanced 2.5%. The reinsurance firm posted a 62% rise in 2012 profit and proposed to pay out a special dividend.
Shares of GN Store Nord AS jumped 8.6% in Copenhagen, as the headset maker said its product portfolio will continue to boost revenue in 2013, while also proposing to lift dividends.
Investors further trained their attention on the U.S., where minutes from the Federal Open Market Committee's January meeting released after European markets closed 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.
On Thursday, data showed first-time applications for U.S. jobless benefits rose by 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.
Additionally, leading economic indicators pointed to slow U.S. growth in the near term with the leading economic nudging 0.2% higher in January, falling short of a 0.3% rise expected by analysts.
U.S. stocks extended Wednesday's steep losses.
"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 3.1% to 16,009.55, with shares of UniCredit SpA down 4.3%.
European markets extended losses in early trading as preliminary readings of purchasing managers' indexes from the major economies stole the limelight.
The preliminary composite 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 1.9% to 7,583.57, with Deutsche Bank AG down 3.9% and Commerzbank AG off 2.7%.
In France, Societe Generale SA dropped 4.5%. The CAC 40 index erased 2.3% to 3,624.80.
Bucking the negative trend in Paris, shares of Schneider Electric SA rose 2.3%, after the company posted a rise in full-year profit and said it expects low-single digit organic growth in sales in 2013.
U.K.'s FTSE 100 index lost 1.6% to 6,291.54. Shares of HSBC Holdings PLC fell 2.3%.
By Sara Sjolin; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com