Paris - European shares were steady early on Thursday, with indexes hovering below recent multi-year peaks ahead of a European Central Bank meeting that is expected to yield fresh measures to spur euro-zone growth.

At 09:52 SA time, the FTSEurofirst 300 index of top European shares was flat, at 1,374.96 points.

At its meeting on Thursday, the ECB is expected to impose negative interest rates on its overnight depositors, seeking to prompt banks to lend instead and to prevent the region from slipping into Japan-like deflation, and launch a long-term refinancing operation (LTRO) targeted at businesses.

A number of traders and fund managers warned of risks of a pull-back in stocks following the ECB announcement and press conference.

“Stocks seem capped at the moment, and risks are mostly on the downside if the ECB doesn't deliver. It's very difficult to predict what the new measures will be. It's best to be 'neutral' equities right now,” said Arnaud Scarpaci, fund manager at Montaigne Capital, in Paris.

“The ECB will certainly announce something, but it might keep some ammunitions for the coming months, and markets might be disappointed if the measures unveiled today are not strong enough.”

The Euro STOXX 50 put/call ratio, one of Europe's widely-used gauges of investor sentiment, has recently risen, signalling that equity investors have been hedging their portfolio against a potential market correction following the ECB announcement.

The ratio - which measures the trading volume of 'put' options versus 'call' options on the Euro STOXX 50 has risen to 1.64, data from Thomson Reuters Datastream shows.

A ratio below 1 usually signals bullishness, while a ratio above 1.5 usually signals that investors are turning cautious, buying 'puts' as a hedge for their equity portfolios in case of a market sell-off.

The Euro STOXX 50 Volatility index, known as the VSTOXX, has been sending a similar signal in the past few sessions.

It has surged 10 percent in the past week, reflecting investors' appetite for portfolio protection despite the market's recent rally.

The VSTOXX, based on put and call options on Euro STOXX 50, is used to measure the cost of protecting stock holdings against market corrections as it usually moves in the opposite direction to cash equities.

“After two weeks of relative calm on the market, the stress is now rising. However, a narrow majority of market players are still buyers,” said Guillaume Dumans, co-head of research firm 2Bremans.

Shares in Mediaset rose 3.2 percent after reports that Telefonica would make an offer to buy Italian broadcaster's stake in Spanish pay-TV group Digital Plus.

Remy Cointreau fell 0.8 percent after the French spirits group said it would slash its dividend as its annual operating profit fell sharply, hit by a Chinese government crackdown on corruption that has sapped demand for premium cognac.

Meanwhile, Deutsche Bank shares ticked down 0.2 percent after the German bank's plans for an 8 billion-euro ($11 billion) capital hike came to an abrupt halt on Wednesday when a procedural bottleneck in a German court forced it to delay the issue by several days. - Reuters