* December exports rose just 0.3 percent on the month
* Weak euro zone demand weighed on German trade
* Trade surplus in 2012 second highest since 1950
* Germany helped trade rebalancing with euro zone
By Alexandra Hudson
BERLIN, Feb 8 (Reuters) - Germany’s trade surplus was the second highest in more than 60 years in 2012, pointing to an underlying resilience in Europe’s largest economy, although both imports and exports disappointed in the last month of the year.
Exports rose just 0.3 percent in December from November, compared with a forecast rise of 1.3 percent, and imports fell 1.3 percent against expectations for a rise of 1.4 percent .
Analysts blamed poor demand from the euro zone and beyond for the weakness of exports, and Germans’ reluctance to spend for the fall in imports, but pointed to signs of recovery ahead, including a 0.8 percent rise in December industrial orders.
“Imports fell noticeably in December but were stronger then exports over the entire quarter, which really weighed on economic growth,” said economist Andreas Scheuerle at Deka Bank.
“Looking forward the sky is brightening. Global early indicators have improved noticeably and give hope that export business will improve again.”
Germany’s economy shrank by 0.5 percent in the last three months of 2012 - its worst quarterly performance since a recession amid the global financial crisis in 2008/2009.
Most economists expect it to grow, albeit weakly, in the first quarter of this year and therefore escape recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of contraction.
But its ability to recover more strongly will be of crucial importance to Europe’s hopes of emerging from four years of debt crisis and recession.
“We went through a period of weakness in exports in the second half of the year. If we look at industrial orders, it seems we are at a turning point,” said Citigroup economist Juergen Michels.
“But even though the latest industrial orders show positive numbers from the ... euro zone, we assume the main part of the recovery will come from countries beyond the euro zone. Demand is especially strong in the USA and China. That will be dampened by the euro.”
The trade surplus rose to 16.8 billion euros in December from an upwardly revised 15.6 billion in November, surpassing the consensus forecast in a Reuters poll for a surplus of 14.8 billion euros.
European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi weakened the euro on Thursday with a subtle hint of concern about the impact of the currency’s recent strength on a euro zone economy reeling from the impact of searing budget cuts across its southern half.
That undermines Spain, Portugal and others’ efforts to be more competitive in markets beyond the currency bloc - but there were signs in Friday’s data that they are at least selling more and buying less from Germany.
In 2012 German exports to the euro zone declined 2.1 percent while imports from the single currency bloc rose 0.7 percent. That may largely be a sign of the weak demand in Spain, Italy and elsewhere, but if continued it would go some way to addressing the bloc’s long-term problem with Germans selling more goods abroad than they spend at home.
“Germany made a contribution to the rebalancing of the Eurozone in 2012, but offset the inevitable loss with success elsewhere,” said Christian Schulz at Berenberg bank.
“For the coming months and for 2013 we expect an improvement in domestic demand and therefore an increase in imports, which will be helped by the strong euro.”
Recent data has shown Germany’s private sector expanding at its fastest rate since June 2011, investor sentiment brightening, consumer morale taking a turn for the better and unemployment falling.
The trade surplus for the whole of 2012 was 188.1 billion euros, the second highest since records began in 1950. Exports rose 3.4 percent and imports rose 0.7 percent in the year.