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Stalling European factories and slowing China leave world economy looking to America

By Jonathan Cable and Koh Gui Qing

LONDON/BEIJING (Reuters) - European manufacturing appeared no closer to recovery last month while growth in Asia cooled, according to business surveys and trade data on Friday that pointed to ongoing weakness in global demand.

Purchasing managers' reports from the United States due later, however, are expected to show growth picking up in the world's largest economy, after a weak fourth quarter.

In China, factory growth slowed to multi-month lows. Sluggish domestic demand added pressure to already depressed foreign sales, two separate purchasing manager indexes (PMI) showed.

Worryingly for European Central Bank policymakers balancing the needs of 17 different economies, euro zone reports painted a picture of ongoing divergence, with a dire performance in France offsetting a return to growth in economic powerhouse Germany.

Markit's Eurozone Manufacturing PMI was unchanged at January's 47.9 last month, just pipping an earlier flash reading of 47.8, but holding below the 50 level that divides growth from contraction for the 19th month running.

Germany, Europe's largest economy, and Ireland were the only two countries in the 17-nation bloc to see growth. PMIs from Spain and Italy showed activity in their factory sectors deteriorated again with the situation worsening in Italy.

The euro zone output index, which feeds into the Composite PMI, a broader gauge of the economy due out on Tuesday, sank to 47.8 from January's 48.7.

"Most of it is driven by Germany. Germany has outperformed the rest of the euro zone for quite a while now and that divergence is going to persist," said Evelyn Herman at BNP Paribas.

In other upbeat news German retail sales grew at the fastest monthly rate in more than six years in January, rebounding from a deep fall in December, confirming signs it has turned the corner after a dismal end to 2012.

But unemployment in the currency union hit a new high in January of 11.9 percent, official data showed, and the PMI data pointed to factories reducing headcount for the thirteenth month.

Some 44 out of 55 economists polled by Reuters said the European Central Bank would have to step in and buy bonds from its struggling members.

Inflation among the countries using the euro fell to 1.8 percent last month, according to official data released on Friday, below the ECB's two percent target ceiling and giving them room to ease policy.

That said, only a handful of the 76 economists polled by Reuters this week predict the ECB will reduce rates from their current record low of 0.75 percent.

British manufacturing shrank unexpectedly in February and new orders dwindled, making it likely the sector will put a drag on economic growth in the first quarter in a country at risk of sinking into a triple-dip recession.

Chances are rising that the Bank of England will rekindle its asset purchase program next week and the PMI data coupled with figures showing mortgage approvals for home buyers dropped in January will only increase those odds.

FRAGILE CHINA

China's official PMI from the National Bureau of Statistics eased to 50.1 after seasonal adjustments in February, the weakest reading in five months and just above the 50-point level separating growth from contraction on a monthly basis.

A second PMI issued by HSBC fell to a 4-month low of 50.4 after seasonal adjustments, off January's 2-year high and in line with a flash, or preliminary, reading late last month.

But the bigger-than-expected retreat in the purchasing managers' indexes does not signal China's economy is slipping into another slowdown, analysts said. Instead, they show China's growth recovery this year would be mild, as widely expected.

The Lunar New Year holiday, China's biggest annual holiday and widely observed across much of East Asia, fell in February this year making it harder to draw firm conclusions, even though the data was seasonally adjusted.

"Today's data point to a stabilization of economic activities in coming months, not a strong recovery of growth," said Jian Chang, a Barclays analyst.

Tim Condon, head of Asian economic research at ING in Singapore, argued China's economic data in January and February has "a lot of noise" due to the festive season. "When it settles down we expect the data will reveal that industrial production is growing around 10 percent," he said.

In South Korea, trade data showed a sharp fall in exports, while a PMI report from last year's emerging market investor favorite Indonesia showed a slight improvement in manufacturing overall, but a fall in new export orders.

Factory growth was stronger in India, struggling to escape the grip of its weakest economic growth in a decade, but there too the strength came from domestic demand, with export orders remaining subdued.

Twin U.S. PMI surveys from Markit and the Institute of Supply Management are expected to come in well above 50. Data on Thursday showing rising consumer spending and falling jobless claims suggested the U.S. economy was picking up after growing just 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter.

(Additional reporting by Olesya Dmitracova in London, Aileen Wang in Beijing, Choonsik Yoo in Seoul, Yati Himatsingka in Bangalore and Rieka Rahadiana in Jakarta; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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