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Euro zone joblessness barely falls in March

Job offers are seen in this illustration in Milan April 3, 2012. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo
Job offers are seen in this illustration in Milan April 3, 2012. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo

By Robin Emmott and Anna Nicolaou

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The number of people out of work in the euro zone fell slightly in March but remained near a record high, a sign that European households are yet to feel the bloc's economic recovery and are unlikely help generate growth in the short term.

Around 18.91 million people were jobless in the 18-nation bloc in March, 22,000 less than in February, or 11.8 percent of the working population, the EU statistics office Eurostat said on Friday.

That is slightly down from the record 12-percent level a year ago, while the 11.8 percent reading was the same as in February. The February reading was revised down by Eurostat from 11.9 percent earlier.

Joblessness has been stuck at almost 19 million people for the last four months and shows the human impact of the worst financial crisis in a generation, but it also varies widely across the euro zone.

Austrian and German unemployment levels were around 5 percent in March, compared to almost 13 percent in Italy and about 25 percent in Spain.

"The cross-country divergence is still very, very significant, much more so than in other data," said Frederik Ducrozet, a senior euro zone economist at Credit Agricole.

"There is a lag right now which is usual, but unless there is another shock to the economy, the unemployment rate should decline," he said.

After two consecutive years of recession, the euro zone's economy is growing again and areas such as manufacturing are reflecting that as new orders rise.

But households are among the last to feel the benefits, which is having a knock-on effect on consumer prices that are in the European Central Bank's "danger zone" of below 1 percent and have raised concerns about damaging deflation in the bloc.

Faced with inflation rates running far below target, the ECB has opened the door to money printing with so-called "quantitative easing" (QE) to boost the euro zone economy, which is growing at a slower rate than much of the rest of the world.

A fall in unemployment could make QE less likely, economists say. "The (pending) job creation in the euro zone should help end the discussion of deflation risks," said Nikolaus Keis, an economist at UniCredit.

For further details of Eurostat data click on: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/portal/page/portal/eurostat/home/

(Editing by Robert-Jan Bartunek)

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