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    * Italy sells five-, 10-year bonds at record low. * Borrowing costs across the bloc hit new troughs. * German seven-year bond yields turn negative. By John Geddie. Italy sold debt at a record-low cost on Thursday and borrowing costs across the euro zone tumbled to new troughs as investors stocked up before the launch of the European Central Bank's sovereign bond-buying scheme in March.

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    * German 7-year debt goes sub-zero for first time. * Looming ECB bond-buying, Fed chair comments in focus. * Raft of corporate earnings lift Europe higher. By Lionel Laurent. Global equities set a new record high and bond yields sank to fresh lows on Thursday as investors positioned for an extended era of cheap money ahead of the European Central Bank's looming bond-buying scheme.

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    German insurer Allianz raised its dividend by less than expected after earnings in its core property and casualty insurance businesses lagged and asset management stalled following client defections at its U.S. unit Pimco.

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    The Federal Reserve says the economy is growing at a "solid" pace, but that's not stopping one manager from moving money into Europe. Must Read: Four Stocks That Are Tanking When the Stock Market Is Rising --Written by Scott Gamm in New York.

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    Russian shares rose 2 percent and the rouble hit a six-week high against the dollar on Thursday as oil prices rallied, while reduced concerns about an imminent U.S. interest rate hike propped up broader emerging assets.

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    The Russian rouble strengthened below 60 roubles per dollar on Thursday for the first time since early January. At 1005 GMT the rouble had fallen back slightly to 60.07, still up 2 percent on the day. The rouble is being supported by a rebound in the oil price, with Brent continuing to rally on Thursday to around $62.5 per barrel.

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    * German 7-year debt goes sub-zero for first time. * Looming ECB bond-buying, Fed chair comments in focus. * Equities more mixed, though global stocks still near highs. * Raft of corporate earnings keep Europe flat. By Lionel Laurent.

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    * Babacan met PM late on Wednesday, triggering speculation. * Turkish assets open weaker, but later rise. * All interest rates cut, dividing analysts. By Dasha Afanasieva. Sharp criticism of the central bank by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan raised concern about the future of its governor and of respected Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan on Thursday, weighing on Turkish assets.

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    Most Asian markets gain, while Sydney shares retreat. HONG KONG-- Japanese stocks resumed their winning ways on Thursday, rising to a fresh 15- year high after breaking a five-session winning streak in the previous session. The Nikkei Average closed up 1.1% to 18,785.79, its best level since April 2000. The index dipped 0.1% on Wednesday.

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    * Immediate focus on U.S. CPI due later in session. * Weak capex enhances case for more RBA easing, hurts Aussie. * New Zealand shows surprise trade surplus. * Frustration may begin to take toll on dollar bulls. By Patrick Graham.

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    * Italy yields fall ahead of debt sale. * Firm demand expect as investors stock up for ECB purchases. * Irish borrowing costs extend falls below 1 pct. By John Geddie. German borrowing costs out to seven years fell below zero for the first time and Italian yields dipped ahead of an auction on Thursday in further signs of frantic investor demand for euro zone government debt.

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    European shares were steady in early trading on Thursday, taking a breather from their sharp two-month rally, with Allianz falling after its dividend rise disappointed.

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    The German government's cost of borrowing over seven years fell below zero for the first time on Thursday, secondary market trading data collected by Reuters showed. Seven-year yields dipped around 2 basis points to a new record low of -0.003 percent. Germany sold its first five-year debt with negative yields on Wednesday.

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    Russia's banking system may face a spike in bad loans to 17-23 percent of its loan portfolio in 2015 from around 8 percent last year, Standard & Poor's ratings agency said on Thursday. The agency added that according to its base scenario, Russian banks may be forced to set aside around 2.5 trillion roubles to cover potential bad loans.

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    LONDON, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Britain's FTSE 100 index is seen opening down 12 to 14 points, or 0.2 percent lower on Thursday, according to financial bookmakers. For more on the factors affecting European stocks, please click on * The blue-chip FTSE 100 index closed down 14.25 points, or 0.2 percent at 6,935.38 points after setting a new record high of 6,958.89 points on Tuesday. * HSBC - The UK tax authority said prosecuting and regulatory agencies would meet next week to discuss leaks of account information from clients who used a Swiss subsidiary of HSBC bank to evade tax. * RBS - Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC is set to confirm the appointment of Howard Davies as its new chairman on Thursday, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters. * ASTRAZENECA - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved the use of Actavis Plc's antibiotic, Avycaz, which is being co-developed with AstraZeneca, to battle drug-resistant bacteria known as superbugs. * DEFENCE FIRMS - Companies which do not face an open competition for British defence contracts will be subject to greater scrutiny over costs under new plans to boost efficiency, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon will say on Thursday. * ROYAL DUTCH SHELL - The largest U.S. refinery strike since 1980 continued through its 25th day on Wednesday with no movement toward renewed talks to end a walkout by 6,550 union workers at 15 plants, including 12 refineries accounting for one-fifth of domestic capacity. * SKY - Sky Sports has agreed to a four-year deal to broadcast live Major League Soccer, the British broadcaster and North American league said on Wednesday. * British consumers have turned more upbeat as faster pay growth and very low inflation make them more confident about their finances, a poll showed on Thursday, little more than two months before a national election. * EX-DIVIDENDS - Diageo and easyJet trade without entitlement to their latest dividend payout on Thursday, trimming 2.57 points off the FTSE 100 index. * UK CORPORATE DIARY: Jupiter Fund Management PLC Full Year 2014 Jupiter Fund Management PLC Earnings Release Reed Elsevier PLC Full Year 2014 Reed Elsevier PLC Earnings Release Premier Oil PLC Full Year 2014 Premier Oil PLC Earnings Release Ladbrokes PLC Full Year 2014 Ladbrokes PLC Earnings Release British American Tobacco Full Year 2014 British PLC American Tobacco PLC Earnings Release RSA Insurance Group PLC Full Year 2014 RSA Insurance Group PLC Earnings Release Spirent Communications plc Preliminary FY 2014 Spirent Communications plc Earnings Release Colt Group SA Full Year 2014 Colt Group SA Earnings Release Bodycote PLC Full Year 2014 Bodycote PLC Earnings Release STV Group PLC Full Year 2014 STV Group PLC Earnings Release Howden Joinery Group PLC Full Year 2014 Howden Joinery Group PLC Earnings Release Interserve PLC Full Year 2014 Interserve PLC Earnings Release Synthomer PLC Full Year 2014 Synthomer PLC Earnings Release RPS Group PLC Full Year 2014 RPS Group PLC Earnings Release Capita PLC Full Year 2014 Capita PLC Earnings Release Photo-Me International PLC Photo-Me International PLC Trading Statement Release Domino's Pizza Group PLC Full Year 2014 Domino's Pizza Group PLC Earnings Release Redde PLC Half Year 2015 Redde PLC Earnings Release Xchanging PLC Full Year 2014 Xchanging PLC Earnings Release Capital & Counties Full Year 2014 Capital & Properties PLC Counties Properties PLC Earnings Release Merlin Entertainments PLC Full Year 2014 Merlin Entertainments PLC Earnings Release Kennedy Wilson Europe Real Full Year 2014 Kennedy Estate PLC Wilson Europe Real Estate PLC Earnings Release Royal Bank of Scotland Full Year 2014 Royal Bank Group PLC of Scotland Group PLC Earnings Release National Express Group PLC Full Year 2014 National Express Group PLC Earnings Release Derwent London PLC Full Year 2014 Derwent London PLC Earnings Release Countrywide PLC Full Year 2014 Countrywide PLC Earnings Release KAZ Minerals PLC Full Year 2014 KAZ Minerals PLC Earnings Release Robert Walters Plc Full Year 2014 Robert Walters Plc Earnings Release Guinness Peat Group PLC Preliminary 2014 Guinness Peat Group PLC Earnings Release Pantheon International Half Year 2015 Pantheon Participations PLC International Participations PLC Earnings Release TODAY'S UK PAPERS > Financial Times > Other business headlines Multimedia versions of Reuters Top News are now available for: * 3000 Xtra : visit http://topnews.session.rservices.com * BridgeStation: view story .134 For more information on Top News visit http://topnews.reuters.com (Reporting by Alistair Smout)

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    PARIS, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Financial spreadbetters expected Britain's FTSE 100 to open 12 to 14 points lower, or down 0.2 percent, Germany's DAX to open 11 to 15 points lower, or down 0.1 percent, and France's CAC 40 to open 1 to 2 points lower, or down 0.04 percent. MAJOR EUROPEAN COMPANIES REPORTING: Q4 2014 Anheuser-Busch InBev SA Earnings Full Year 2014 ACS Earnings Full Year 2014 Acerinox SA Earnings Q4 and Full Year 2014 Koninklijke Ahold NV Earnings Full Year 2014 Allianz AG Earnings Release Full Year 2014 British American Tobacco PLC Earnings Full Year 2014 Bayer AG Earnings Full Year 2014 Bodycote PLC Earnings Full Year 2014 Colt Group SA Earnings Full Year 2014 Capita PLC Earnings Full Year 2014 CRH PLC Earnings Release Full Year 2014 Domino's Pizza Group PLC Earnings Release Q4 2014 Deutsche Telekom Earnings Release Full Year 2014 Reed Elsevier PLC Earnings Release Q4 2014 Eurocash SA Earnings Release Full Year 2014 Gamesa Corporacion Tecnologica SA Earnings Full Year 2014 CGG SA Earnings Release Full Year 2014 Grifols SA Earnings Release Full Year 2014 GDF Suez SA Earnings Release Full Year 2014 Heijmans NV Earnings Release Full Year 2014 Hochtief AG Earnings Release Full Year 2014 Interserve PLC Earnings Release Full Year 2014 Ladbrokes PLC Earnings Release Q4 2014 Hellenic Telecommunications Organization SA Earnings Full Year 2014 Premier Oil PLC Earnings Full Year 2014 Playtech PLC Earnings Full Year 2014 Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC Earnings Q4 & FY 2014 Repsol SA Earnings Full Year 2014 RSA Insurance Group PLC Earnings Full Year 2014 Sacyr SA Earnings Q4 2014 Seadrill Partners LLC Earnings Full Year 2014 SEB SA Earnings Q4 2014 Solvay SA Earnings Preliminary FY 2014 Spirent Communications plc Earnings Full Year 2014 Thales SA Earnings Preliminary 2014 TAG Immobilien AG Earnings Full Year 2014 Mediaset Espana Comunicacion SA Earnings Full Year 2014 Veolia Environnement VE SA Earnings MAJOR U.S. COMPANIES REPORTING : Q4 2015 Autodesk Inc Q4 2014 AES Corp Q4 2014 CenterPoint Energy Inc Q4 2014 Gap Inc Q4 2014 Kohl's Corp Q4 2014 Monster Beverage Corp Q4 2014 Ross Stores Inc Q4 2014 Sempra Energy Q4 2014 Southwestern Energy Co Q4 2014 Universal Health Services Inc MAJOR MACROECONOMIC DATA/EVENTS (GMT) : 0700 DE GfK Consumer Sentiment Mar 0855 DE Unemployment Change Feb 0900 EZ Money-M3 Annual Growth Jan 0900 IT Retail sales Dec 0930 GB GDP 2nd release Q4 1000 EZ Business climate Feb 1000 EZ Economic Sentiment Feb 1000 EZ Consumer confidence Feb 1330 US CPI Jan 1330 US Durable goods Jan 1330 US initial jobless claims w/e ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ MARKET SNAPSHOT AT 0625 GMT: LAST PCT CHG NET CHG S&P 500 2,113.86 -0.08 % -1.62 NIKKEI 18785.79 1.08 % 200.59 MSCI ASIA EX-JP 488.5 -0.24 % -1.19 EUR/USD 1.1363 0.02 % 0.0002 USD/JPY 118.94 0.08 % 0.1000 10-YR US TSY YLD 1.957 -- -0.01 10-YR BUND YLD 0.325 -- -0.01 SPOT GOLD $1,212.45 0.67 % $8.05 US CRUDE $50.72 -0.53 % -0.27 > GLOBAL MARKETS-SHARES DIP FROM 5-MONTH HIGH, DOLLAR STEADIES > US STOCKS-S&P, NASDAQ EDGE DOWN WITH APPLE; DOW ENDS AT RECORD HIGH > NIKKEI RISES TO FRESH 15-YEAR HIGH AS FED SUPPORTS MOOD > TREASURIES-BOND PRICES RISE AFTER LATEST YELLEN REMARKS, CPI EYED > FOREX-FED DISAPPOINTS DOLLAR BULLS, WEAK DATA KNOCKS AUSSIE DOWN > PRECIOUS-GOLD HOLDS ABOVE $1,200 ON VIEW US RATE RISE WILL BE DELAYED > COPPER CLIMBS TOWARDS 6-WK PEAK AS CHINA TRICKLES IN FROM HOLIDAY > BRENT DROPS TOWARDS $61 AS US CRUDE STOCKS RISE (Reporting by Blaise Robinson)

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    By Ayai Tomisawa TOKYO, Feb 26 - Japan's Nikkei share average rose to a new 15-year high on Thursday after hedge funds were seen buying futures, while index-heavyweight stocks rose as investor risk appetite improved following benign comments by Fed Chair Janet Yellen.

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    Here are some factors that may affect Middle East stock markets on Thursday. INTERNATIONAL/REGIONAL. * GLOBAL MARKETS-Asian shares edge down from 5-month high, dollar steadies MKTS/GLOB] * Brent falls towards $61 as US crude stocks weigh. * MIDEAST STOCKS-Gulf markets edge up on commodities, dovish Fed. * PRECIOUS-Gold steadies as US rate hike timing expectations ease.

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    * 53 pct expect to increase Saudi equity allocations * Saudi Arabia to open market to foreigners in coming months * Has benefitted from oil's rebound * Funds less optimistic on other stalled Gulf markets * Negative on Qatar as dividend season nears its end By Olzhas Auyezov DUBAI, Feb 26 (Reuters) - Middle East funds are increasingly positive towards Saudi Arabia's stock market as oil prices appear to be stabilising and the kingdom is preparing to open its bourse to direct foreign investment, a Reuters survey of regional asset managers shows. With its main stock index up 11.2 percent year-to-date, Saudi Arabia has outperformed all other major bourses in the Middle East, whose returns are mostly in the low single digits. In the February version of the monthly survey, 53 percent of respondents said they expected to increase their Saudi equity allocations in the next three months, while none intended to cut them. A month earlier, 40 percent planned to boost Saudi equity allocations and the rest expected them to be stable. Saudi Arabia's Capital Market Authority has said it plans to open the stock market to direct investment by foreign institutions in the first half of 2015. Analysts expect the opening to be gradual, with institutional investors permitted to enter into stages, so a sudden rush of funds into the market looks unlikely. But eventually the opening may help Saudi Arabia secure the status of an emerging market in global indexes, which could trigger heavy fund inflows. Another positive factor is oil, which appears to have bottomed out at $45 per barrel of Brent in January and has hovered around $60 in the last few weeks. This is providing support to heavily weighted petrochemical stocks. Although Saudi Arabia's state budget will be in deficit if oil stays at the current level, the government's fiscal reserves will allow it to keep spending heavily, as shown by King Salman's order late last month to pay two months' salary as a bonus to public servants. State-run companies have mirrored the move, prompting a rally in consumer-focused stocks. Thanks to their high concentrations of interest-free deposits, profit margins at Saudi Arabian banks may benefit when U.S. interest rate hikes expected later this year prompt rate rises in the Gulf, where currencies are pegged to the dollar. The Reuters survey of 15 leading Middle East investment professionals was conducted over the past 10 days. UAE, QATAR With all eyes on Saudi Arabia, fund managers are somewhat less optimistic about other Gulf stock markets and have become temporarily negative on Qatar. Thirty-three percent of respondents expect to increase their United Arab Emirates allocations and 7 percent plan to cut them. In January, the percentages were 47 and 13 respectively. With its large exposure to the real estate sector, Dubai's bourse in particular may be vulnerable to interest rate rises starting later this year. UAE markets "have been trading in a tight horizontal range on low volumes, which indicates many of the institutions and high net worth individuals are adopting a wait-and-see approach till first-quarter results to see what the effect of lower oil prices will be on companies' profits in 2015," said Mohammed Ali Yasin, managing director at Abu Dhabi's NBAD Securities. However, he added that he believed that "the second quarter will see more activity and the breaking of the trading range." In Qatar, 33 percent of respondents expect to reduce allocations and 20 percent see them increasing. A month earlier, fund managers were neutral, with 20 percent planning to increase allocations and 20 percent expecting to cut them. With its relatively generous dividends, Qatar usually attracts investors in December and January, but a substantial number then leave after receiving their payouts. Overall, 27 percent of respondents expect to raise their equity allocations to the Middle East in the next three months, down from 33 percent in the previous survey. At the same time, the number of managers planning to cut their total equity allocations has fallen to 13 percent from 20 percent. In the latest survey, only 7 percent expect to raise fixed income allocations, down from 13 percent a month ago; in both surveys, 27 percent of respondents said they expected to reduce them. "Middle East fixed income spreads are currently at the tighter end of historical levels, driven primarily by net negative issuance and liquidity in the banking system," Abu Dhabi-based Invest AD commented. "We expect the markets will remain technical over the next three months, and due to the already very tight spreads, our overall fixed income allocation to the Middle East will decrease." SURVEY RESULTS 1) Do you expect to increase/decrease/keep the same your overall equity allocation to the Middle East in the next three months? INCREASE - 4 DECREASE - 2 SAME - 9 2) Do you expect to increase/decrease/keep the same your overall fixed income allocation to the Middle East in the next three months? INCREASE - 1 DECREASE - 4 SAME - 10 3) Do you expect to increase/decrease/keep the same your equity allocations to the following countries in the next three months? a) United Arab Emirates INCREASE - 5 DECREASE - 1 SAME - 9 b) Qatar INCREASE - 3 DECREASE - 5 SAME - 7 c) Saudi Arabia INCREASE - 8 DECREASE - 0 SAME - 7 d) Egypt INCREASE - 6 DECREASE - 1 SAME - 8 e) Turkey INCREASE - 1 DECREASE - 2 SAME - 12 f) Kuwait INCREASE - 4 DECREASE - 2 SAME - 9 NOTE - Institutions taking part in the survey are: Abu Dhabi Fund for Development; Invest AD; Ahli Bank Oman; Al Mal Capital; Al Rayan Investment LLC; Amwal Qatar; Arqaam Capital; Emirates NBD; Global Investment House; National Bank of Abu Dhabi; NBK Capital; Rasmala Investment Bank; Schroders Middle East; Securities and Investment Co of Bahrain; Union National Bank. (Editing by Andrew Torchia)