(Reuters) — Major economies in Asia and Europe finished the first quarter on a weaker note, with key manufacturing surveys fuelling expectations policymakers may be forced to act in coming months to prop up faltering growth.
Factories across Europe eased back on the throttle in March while China's vast manufacturing industry contracted for the third month, surveys showed, although a similar poll due later on Tuesday from the United States is expected to show a pick-up.
"The PMIs have given a steer on the Chinese economy for awhile and it is looking like the People's Bank of China will take some action," said Philip Shaw at Investec.
"In the euro area they are tending to confirm that the recovery is taking place gradually, but that there is a broadening of the recovery."
Output again rose across the board in the euro zone, suggesting its recovery is becoming entrenched, but Markit's Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) also revealed that factories were once more cutting prices.
The bloc's final manufacturing PMI came in at 53, matching an earlier flash reading but below February's 53.2, while the output price sub-index dropped below the 50 mark that separates growth from contraction for the first time since August.
Euro zone inflation fell to just 0.5 per cent last month, its lowest since November 2009 and well below the European Central Bank's target of just below two per cent.
The ECB is expected to keep monetary policy unchanged on Thursday despite calls for it to act to support growth. Olli Rehn, the EU's top economic official, added to that pressure on Tuesday, saying prolonged low inflation would make it harder to correct imbalances in the euro zone.
Unemployment in the bloc declined slightly in February, although it remained at 11.9 per cent, the European statistics office Eurostat said on Tuesday.
Growth in British manufacturing unexpectedly eased to its slowest pace in eight months and prices paid by factories tumbled, giving the Bank of England scant reason to adjust its loose policy stance.
World stocks got off to a solid second-quarter start on Tuesday after reassuring noises from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen while major currencies and bonds looked set for more cautious jockeying ahead of the ECB meeting and U.S. jobs data.
In China, the final Markit/HSBC PMI gauge of factory activity fell to an eight-month low of 48 in March. It has remained below the 50 level since January.
The official survey, which is geared towards bigger, state-owned firms, showed a marginal increase to 50.3 from 50.2.
But economists warned that given seasonal patterns, this was a sign of further weakness rather than improvement in the world's second-biggest economy.
"Overall, both March PMI readings further underpin the weak start to the year experienced by the Chinese economy. They also increase the pressure on the Chinese authorities to stimulate the economy," said Nikolaus Keis, an economist at UniCredit.
Investors are betting China will try to arrest the loss of momentum after what has shaped up to be its worst quarter in five years.
Last week, Premier Li Keqiang said Beijing had the necessary policies in place and would push ahead with infrastructure investment, after recent weak economic data and mounting signs of financial risks clouded the nation's outlook.
In Japan, the closely watched central bank tankan survey showed business sentiment barely improved in the three months to March and was set to sour this quarter following an increase in sales tax that took effect on Tuesday.
The tax increase is taking a bigger toll on corporate sentiment than the previous hike in 1997, highlighting the daunting challenge facing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his quest to shore up government revenues while rescuing the country from years of deflationary stagnation.
Big manufacturers and non-manufacturers in Japan expect conditions to worsen in the three months ahead, keeping alive expectations the Bank of Japan will boost its massive monetary stimulus to sustain recovery in the world's No. 3 economy.
Japan's Markit/JMMA Manufacturing PMI pulled back further from January's eight-year high as heavy snow in some areas curbed production.
"The chance of further BOJ easing may have risen a bit but the tankan alone won't be a trigger for action. The bank will probably wait to see more evidence on how much the tax hike actually hurts demand," said Yoshiki Shinke, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.
Factory PMI surveys for Asia's third and fifth-largest economies India and Indonesia also came in softer, with India's index still in growth territory, but Indonesia's hitting a seven-month low.
However, South Korea, Asia's fourth-largest economy and one of its leading manufacturing and export powerhouses, managed to buck the trend — its HSBC/Markit manufacturing gauge rose.