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World set to end year in brittle economic state

[LONDON/SYDNEY] The global economy is ending the year in a fragile state with factory activity shrinking in China, eurozone business growth remaining weak, and emerging market giant Russia in a spiralling currency crisis.

"These are uncertain times again and there is a risk of another global downturn," said Stephen Webster, chief European economist at 4CAST.

Poor to mediocre business surveys in Asia and Europe released on Tuesday are likely to put pressure on both the European Central Bank and People's Bank of China to come up with more stimulus.

They also threaten the overall 2015 outlook give the two economies' huge global reach. Data for the United States was due later in the day.

But it was events in Russia that were most eye-catching.

Russia's central bank took drastic action to defend its rouble currency in a surprise midnight raising of interest rates by 650 basis points to 17 per cent.

But despite that the rouble was some down 4 per cent against the dollar, having opened about 9 per cent stronger, and the dollar-denominated RTS share index fell more than 11 per cent.

It has lost around 50 per cent to the dollar this year.

A relentless slide in oil prices - Brent crude has almost halved in price since June - while a blessing to most rich world consumers, is becoming a curse for countries reliant on resource exports.

The Russian economy still depends in large measure on sales of oil and gas, which account for about two-thirds of exports and Indonesia became the latest Asian casualty when its currency caved to fresh 16-year lows.

Russia, however, is also being hit by Western sanctions over its relations with Ukraine.

Eurozone businesses are ending 2014 in slightly better shape than thought but growth remains weak and firms are still cutting prices to encourage trade, surveys showed.

Markit's Composite Flash Purchasing Managers' Index, based on surveys of thousands of companies and seen as a good growth indicator, rose to 51.7 from a 16-month low of 51.1.

That beat the forecast in a Reuters poll for a rise to 51.5 but was the second-lowest reading in over a year.

"Although the PMI has not been a perfect guide to GDP over recent quarters, that suggests that the eurozone economy probably barely expanded in Q4, if at all," said Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist at Capital Economics.

Still, German analyst and investor sentiment rose sharply in December for a second month running, as a decline in the euro and oil prices boosted hopes for a pickup although a composite PMI covering Europe's largest economy showed weaker growth.

Coupled with a PMI for France, which highlighted a continued decline, the eurozone survey suggested there was a renewed upturn in the bloc's smaller periphery countries.

"The periphery is seeing faster growth but you are in danger that if the (eurozone) core remains weak, that will spread to the periphery and everything will come down again," said Chris Williamson, Markit's chief economist.

Mr Williamson said the PMIs pointed to fourth-quarter GDP growth of 0.1 per cent, weaker than the 0.2 per cent predicted in a Reuters poll last week, but that very weak expansion is coming at a cost: firms cut prices for the 33rd month.

Inflation in the bloc cooled to a five-year low of just 0.3 per cent last month, well within the European Central Bank's"danger zone", adding to expectations for more policy easing.

Weak growth and deepening concern that plunging oil prices may send the eurozone into a deflationary spiral that will push the ECB to buy sovereign debt early next year, a Reuters poll found last week.

The mood in Asia was little better after a measure of Chinese manufacturing activity from HSBC/Markit fell to 49.5 in December from November's 50.0.

Anything below 50 indicates contraction.

"The manufacturing slowdown points to a weak ending for 2014," said Hongbin Qu, chief economist for China at HSBC.

"The rising disinflationary pressures, which fundamentally reflect weak demand, warrant further monetary easing in the coming months."

Worries about disinflation, and whether it could morph into outright deflation, have spread world wide and the risks are such that investors are wagering the US Federal Reserve might go slow on policy tightening next year even if its economy continues to outperform.

The central bank starts a two-day meeting later on Tuesday and there is intense speculation on whether it will drop a commitment to keeping rates near zero for a "considerable time."

British inflation fell to its lowest level in more than 12 years in November, coming in at half the Bank of England's two per cent target and leaving it under no pressure to raise interest rates anytime soon.

REUTERS