UPDATE 1-Argentina economy grew 2.6 pct in March vs year ago

Fri May 17, 2013 3:44pm EDT

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BUENOS AIRES May 17 (Reuters) - Argentina's economic activity grew 2.6 percent in March from a year earlier and expanded 0.7 percent versus February, the national statistics institute said on Friday.

The official year-on-year rate beat the 2.3 percent median growth forecast in a Reuters poll of 10 analysts, whose estimates ranged from 0.6 percent to 3.1 percent.

Accumulated growth in the 12 months through March was 1.3 percent, down from 1.9 percent in full-year 2012. Latin America's No. 3 economy has cooled abruptly after booming during most of the last decade.

Most economists blame soft external demand, high inflation, and the negative impact of state currency and trade controls on investment.

March's economic data was likely boosted by industrial production, which expanded 0.2 percent year-on-year after slumping 4.4 percent in February.

In February, economic activity rose 2.3 percent year-on-year and 0.3 percent from the prior month.

Argentina is widely accused of manipulating inflation data and, to a lesser extent, growth data. It faces potential sanctions by the International Monetary Fund, which has issued a "declaration of censure" against Argentina over the quality of its inflation and GDP data.

The monthly EMAE economic activity index is a close proxy for gross domestic product, which is reported quarterly. Argentina will release its first-quarter GDP figures on June 24.

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