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European stocks drop on UK economic data
European stock markets drop on UK economy data shows worsening signs of a recession
By The Associated Press

PARIS (AP) ' European stock markets fell Wednesday as investors weighed worsening signs of recession in Europe's third largest economy and heightened fears that negotiations on avoiding a Greek debt default had hit an impasse.

Stock indices in Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere were each down around 1 percent at midday, even as Asian shares rallied overnight as Apple Inc.'s stellar earnings report sent technology shares sharply higher.

France's CAC-40 index was down 1 percent at 3,290 and Germany's DAX was 0.7 percent at 6,375, while Britain's FTSE 100 index was down 0.6 percent at 5,715.

Stocks were falling as key Greek bondholders met for a closed-door meeting in Paris to discuss how ' and whether ' to continue talks central to Europe's debt crisis.

The steering committee of the Institute of International Finance represents banks and other investment funds that hold a large part of Greece's debt and are being asked to swap their exisitng bonds with new ones of a reduced value, longer maturity and lower interest rate.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to chart her course for the way out of Europe's crisis at a keynote speech at an economic forum in Davos, Switzerland later Wednesday. In an interview with major European newspapers published Wednesday, the chancellor warned that the crisis was not over, despite European leaders efforts over more than two years.

Adding to market gloom was a report that Britain's economy shrank by 0.2 percent in the last quarter of 2011, a worse-than-expected result that raises recession fears.

A closely watched index of German business optimism provided some relief. The monthly Ifo index rose for the third month in a row, but analysts remained largely skeptical.

The report "suggests that the economy is holding up relatively well, but activity is nowhere near strong enough to provide a meaningful boost to the eurozone's periphery," said Jennifer McKeown, senior European economist at Capital Economics.

After a session of slight losses Tuesday, Wall Street appeared headed for a higher opening. Dow Jones Industrial Futures rose 0.1 percent to 12,644 while S&P 500 futures added 0.2 percent to 1,314.40.

Asian stocks posted solid gains. The Nikkei 225 index in Tokyo rose 1.1 percent to close at 8,883.69. South Korea's Kospi gained 0.1 percent to 1,952.23 and Australia's S&P/ASX 200 added 1.1 percent to 4,271.30. Markets in Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan remained closed for Chinese New Year.

Japan's powerhouse export sector got a lift from a moderation in the yen's strength even as the country reported its first annual trade deficit since 1980. A strong yen, which hit multiple historic highs last year against the dollar, shrinks the value of overseas earnings when repatriated and makes Japanese products less competitive.

Honda Motor Corp. surged 3.8 percent. Mitsubishi Motor Corp. jumped 4.4 percent and Sony Corp. added 4.8 percent. Tire-maker Bridgestone Corp. added 4.2 percent.

Technology stocks were elevated after Apple Inc. reported earnings that sailed past analyst estimates. Apple said late Tuesday said it sold 37 million iPhones in the last three months of 2011, vastly exceeding estimates and propelling the company to record quarterly results.

That stellar performance reverberated throughout the global tech industry. South Korea's LG Electronics Inc., which ranks No. 2 globally in flat screen televisions, jumped 4.1 percent. Hynix Semiconductor Inc., the world's second-largest memory chip maker, added 1.9 percent.

In Australia, shares in Lynas Corp. Ltd. soared 5.1 percent after the company said it had secured the funding necessary to complete construction and start-up at its rare earths processing plant in Malaysia.

Stan Shamu of IG Markets in Melbourne said the gains in Asia suggested that investors were paying less attention to Greece, which is struggling to reach a deal with creditors to prevent a chaotic default on its massive debts. A default could trigger a financial crisis in Europe and likely beyond.

Greece is trying to get its creditors to swap Greek government bonds for new ones that have half the face value. Greece faces an important bond repayment deadline in March.

"To a large extent, traders are thinking that people are going to lose money either way in this deal, so it's now about how we can move on," Shamu said. Markets "are thinking more long-term. Encouraging data out of the U.S. has been good for sentiment. We also have China, which has been managing its economy very well."

Benchmark oil for March delivery rose 8 cents to $99.03 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract fell 63 cents to end at $98.95 per barrel on the Nymex on Tuesday.

In currency trading, the euro rose to $1.3031 from $1.3021 late Tuesday in New York. The dollar rose to 77.98 yen from 77.73 yen.

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