UPDATE 1-Surge in imports narrows German trade surplus
* Rise in January imports biggest since May 2012
* Strength of Q1 in question after weak industry data
* Germany pins hopes on US, China, domestic demand
BERLIN, March 11 (Reuters) - Germany's trade surplus narrowed in January with imports rebounding after two weak months to rise at their fastest pace since last May, data from the Federal Statistics Office showed on Monday.
The figures showed a pickup in exports as well, but may raise questions about how much trade, the traditional driver of Europe's largest economy, will contribute to an expected first quarter recovery.
Data published last week showed a sharp fall in manufacturing orders and zero growth in industrial output in January, deepening concerns about the strength of the rebound from a weak fourth quarter, which saw gross domestic product (GDP) contract by 0.6 percent.
Leading indicators like the Ifo business climate index have pointed to a sharp rebound to start 2013, but the hard data has been mixed so far.
"So far we had disappointing numbers in January," said Juergen Michels of Citigroup. "That's why the rise in exports and also imports is a good sign that something is indeed happening at the start of the year and that the good leading indicators like Ifo are not completely wrong."
Exports pushed 1.4 percent higher in January in seasonally adjusted terms, the biggest increase in five months. Imports, which had fallen 1.5 percent and 3.8 percent in the prior two months, surged 3.3 percent, taking the trade surplus down to 15.7 billion euros from a revised 16.9 billion in December.
The surplus was bang in line with the expectations of economists polled by Reuters, although they had forecast smaller increases in exports and imports of 0.5 percent and 0.9 percent respectively.
Weakness in Germany's European trading partners, many of whom have been hit hard by the euro zone debt crisis, contributed to the GDP contraction at the end of last year.
In 2013, Germany is counting on stronger demand from the United States and China, as well as a pickup in domestic consumption on the back of solid wage gains and continued low unemployment.
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