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Business activity lifted in Feb as central banks loosen up

[LONDON] Global business activity picked up last month just as many central banks around the world loosen monetary policy further to try and drive up stubbornly low inflation and revive moribund economies.

Growth in China's service industry accelerated and India's expanded at an eight-month high while firms across the eurozone ramped up operations at the fastest rate in seven months, according to surveys published on Wednesday.

The survey results come days after the People's Bank of China (PBOC) cut interest rates and mere hours after the Reserve Bank of India followed suit. The European Central Bank is about to embark on a trillion-euro stimulus programme.

"Activity has begun to pick up a bit, some of the concerns about growth falling off a cliff towards the end of last year always seemed to us to be overdone," said Andrew Kenningham at Capital Economics. "The most likely factor is the fall in the oil price which is now beginning to feed through. Central bank action won't do any harm."

Oil prices, like the euro, have tumbled in recent months, helping drive Markit's final February Composite Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) for the eurozone, seen as a good growth gauge, up to a seven-month high of 53.3.

Although weaker than a preliminary estimate of 53.5 it comfortably beat January's 52.6 and achieved its 20th month above the 50 level that separates growth from contraction.

Markit said the surveys pointed to first quarter GDP growth of 0.3 per cent, the same as in late 2014, with business activity expanding in all the bloc's four biggest economies for the first time since April.

That matches the median forecast in a Reuters poll last month.

Eager German shoppers helped January's eurozone retail sales grow at their fastest rate since May 2013, quicker than any of the economists polled by Reuters had expected.

But firms have been cutting prices for almost three years now to encourage demand, the PMI showed, and the ECB is still struggling to bring inflation - which was -0.3 per cent in February - back to its near 2 per cent target.

As part of that battle, and to stimulate growth, the central bank plans to flood markets with cash from this month.

Business expectations among services firms for the coming 12 months were at their highest since May 2011, suggesting they are optimistic the ECB's plan will succeed - unlike nearly half of 83 economists polled by Reuters last week.

In contrast, Britain, which is outside the eurozone, may begin raising interest rates late this year, a Reuters poll found last week.

In a further sign its economy got off to a strong start in 2015, firms hired staff at the second-fastest rate on record, wages rose and new orders increased.

"Strong growth, rapid employment gains, optimistic firms, expectations of future rapid growth. It hardly stacks up to the Bank of England's more cautious assessment of conditions in its February Inflation Report," said Rob Wood at Berenberg.

The US Federal Reserve is widely expected to begin tightening policy sooner, probably in June, although an Institute for Supply Management survey due later on Wednesday is expected to show a slight loss of momentum in services activity.

China's HSBC/Markit Services PMI picked up to 52.0 last month from January's 51.8 as new business increased at the quickest pace in three months.

"The solid rise in new orders suggests that activity growth may pick up in the months ahead, as firms continued to add to their payroll numbers amid a positive business outlook," Markit economist Annabel Fiddes said.

Accounting for 48 per cent of China's US$10 trillion economy last year, the services industry has weathered the growth downturn better than factories have, partly because it depends less on foreign demand.

Chinese economic growth slowed to 7.4 per cent in 2014, the weakest in 24 years, and its central bank cut interest rates late on Saturday. It was the PBOC's third major easing since late November, as regulators show signs of intensifying concern over lacklustre data since the fourth quarter and growing deflationary pressures.

India's central bank unexpectedly lowered its policy rate for the second time this year on Wednesday, backing a government that is pushing to revive economic growth as inflation cools.

Although markets had broadly expected the RBI to reduce rates again after a cut in January, few had expected a move just days after the government unveiled a budget that took a slower path to lowering the fiscal deficit.