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Evaporating inflation and growth put pressure on central banks

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Businesses across Asia and Europe have slashed prices at the start of the year to drum up trade, surveys showed on Friday, a day after the European Central Bank voted to print money in a bid to revive inflation.

[LONDON] Businesses across Asia and Europe have slashed prices at the start of the year to drum up trade, surveys showed on Friday, a day after the European Central Bank voted to print money in a bid to revive inflation.

Eurozone firms cut prices at the fastest rate in nearly five years and Chinese factories cut them for the sixth straight month, while economic growth in South Korea slowed sharply, raising the prospect of more easing from central banks in Asia.

The ECB took the policy plunge on Thursday, announcing a government bond-buying programme which will pump hundreds of billions of euros in new money into a sagging eurozone economy.

With Chinese factory growth stalling for a second month, expectations are high that Beijing will announce fresh stimulus measures soon.

"2015 is unlikely to be a particularly fantastic year with regards to global growth," said Peter Dixon, an economist at Commerzbank.

"There is no doubt that across the world central banks are being a little bit more aggressive. Disinflation has certainly changed the monetary prospects."

Markit's Eurozone Composite Flash Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI), based on surveys of thousands of companies and seen as a good growth indicator, bounced to a five-month high of 52.2 from December's 51.4.

That beat the median forecast of 51.8 and marked the 19th month above the 50 line denoting growth.

But Markit said it pointed to first-quarter growth of just 0.2 per cent, slightly worse than the 0.3 per cent predicted in a Reuters poll last week.

"January's small rise in the eurozone composite PMI suggests that growth remains very slow, confirming that the ECB's latest policy support is sorely needed," said Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics.

The index for prices charged slumped to 46.9, its lowest since February 2010, and comes after official data showed consumer prices fell 0.2 per cent in December, the first negative print since the depths of the financial crisis in 2009.

Falling prices in Britain gave an unexpected boost to retailers there in December, with sales rising 0.4 per cent on the month after surging by 1.6 per cent in November, the strongest growth in more than a decade.

Business surveys due later on Friday on US manufacturing may highlight concerns that its economy is the only engine driving global growth this year.

SLOW BOAT FROM CHINA Emerging Asian economies will grow at a lacklustre pace this year and next, held back by a slowdown in China and weak global demand, while cooling inflation will probably throw open the door for monetary policy easing, a Reuters poll showed on Friday.

China's HSBC/Markit Flash Manufacturing PMI hovered at 49.8 in January, little changed from December, but the input prices index fell to the lowest since the global financial crisis, reflecting a tumble in oil prices that is spreading disinflationary pressure throughout the globe.

Analysts at Nomura saw more downside pressure on China's producer prices, "enhancing our concerns over deflation". "This looks like a trend and it will affect core inflation at some stage. So the PBOC will very likely react to such deflation concerns," said Chang Chun Hua, an economist at Nomura.

News out of South Korea made for uncomfortable reading as well. Asia's fourth-largest economy grew a seasonally adjusted 0.4 per cent in the October-December period, less than half the 0.9 per cent expansion in the third quarter.

The Bank of Korea is widely expected to cut interest rates in the first half of this year.

In Thailand, the finance minister urged the central bank to cut rates to help the sputtering economy and said he was worried that the strength of the baht currency will hurt exports, a key growth engine.

Australian investors now see a bigger chance of a rate cut after surprise easing from Canada earlier this week , while India last week cut rates earlier than expected and hinted at more to come.

The lone bright spot in Asia was Japan, where manufacturers saw a pickup in domestic and overseas orders this month and hired more staff.

But even there the central bank is struggling to reach its 2 percent inflation target two years into so-called 'Abenomics' - a mix of aggressive monetary and fiscal policy and structural reform aimed at pulling the country out of decades of deflation, a fate other global policymakers are desperate to avoid.

"With very low inflation, or even negative inflation and some slack remaining, we expect that advanced economy monetary policy will continue to loosen overall," analysts at Citi wrote in a note to clients.

"ECB QE will probably be scaled up further over time. We also expect the BoJ to expand QE further around mid-year."

REUTERS