Survey finds eurozone began 2015 stronger than thought

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LONDON (AP) — Maybe all the doom and gloom surrounding the 19-country eurozone has been overdone.

A couple of closely monitored indicators suggest the eurozone was performing stronger at the turn of the year than previously thought, partly because of the positive impact of lower oil prices.

Eurostat, the EU's statistics office, said retail sales rose 0.3 percent in December. That's the third-straight monthly increase and suggests retail sales have helped economic growth in the fourth quarter, for which figures are due to be published next week.

Separately, financial information company Markit said its purchasing managers' index, a gauge of business activity, spiked to a six-month high of 52.6 points in January from the previous month's 51.4.

January's outcome was better than the initial estimate of 52.2 and points to a quarter-on-quarter growth rate of 0.3 percent — low by historical standards but largely better than the growth recorded over the past couple of years. Anything above 50 indicates expansion.

Among the big-four nations, Markit found economic activity grew in Germany, Italy and Spain, but the downturn in the French economy extended into its ninth month. Markit also found that the rate of job creation inched up to its best level since mid-2011.

Markit also laid out the hope that the European Central Bank's recent decision to back a 1 trillion-euro ($1.12 trillion) stimulus should lift growth further.

"The move to full-scale quantitative easing by the ECB should help drive even stronger growth in coming months," said Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit.

Ostensibly, the stimulus is meant to get inflation in the eurozone back to target. The ECB is trying to bring up inflation — at minus 0.6 percent in the year to January — to just under 2 percent annually.

Markit's survey showed inflation remains benign in light of the sharp fall in oil prices over the past few months. However, it said lower oil prices, most visible at the pump, should help boost consumers' spending power.

The eurozone has suffered a number of false dawns over the past few years and Williamson said risks remain.

"There are clearly many risks to the outlook, including any escalation of the Greek crisis and the political fracas with Russia," he said.

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