* Exports jump 2.2 pct vs estimate of 1.4 pct
* Imports rise by more than double top forecast
* Trade surplus narrows to 17.2 bln eur
By Sarah Marsh
BERLIN, March 11 (Reuters) - German exports and imports surged in January at the fastest pace in nearly two years, data showed on Tuesday, adding to signs that Europe’s largest economy started the year on a strong footing and is on track to robust growth.
Data from the Federal Statistics Office showed seasonally-adjusted exports up 2.2 percent in January, well above a consensus forecast for a rise of 1.4 percent. Shipments abroad had fallen 0.9 percent in December.
Imports jumped even more, by 4.1 percent, more than double the highest forecast in a Reuters poll of 2.0 percent, bouncing back from a downwardly revised fall of 1.4 percent in December. The consensus forecast was for a rise of 1.3 percent.
This narrowed the seasonally-adjusted trade surplus to 17.2 billion euros from a revised 18.3 billion in December.
“Foreign demand is going well, this is a positive sign for economic growth in the first quarter,” said Ralph Solveen, an economist at Commerzbank. “The economy should grow by about 0.75 percent, not least because the construction sector will have benefited from a mild winter.”
The trade data comes on the heels of upbeat figures last week showing industrial orders and output rose in January. Forward-looking indicators have also been positive, with the mood among consumers, investors and businesses hitting multi-year highs in recent months.
A breakdown of year-on-year data showed demand from European countries beyond the euro zone contributed most to the surge, up 9.1 percent. But exports to the common currency bloc were also up on the year, by 3.2 percent, and only shipments to countries beyond Europe fell.
“Exporters’ business with the euro zone is working better, above all thanks to the better economic outlook in Italy and France at the end of 2013,” said Stefan Kipar at Bayern LB. “We expect German economic growth of 1.7 percent in 2014, it might even be slightly more.”
German imports were strongest from the euro zone, in a sign that solid German demand is helping the rest of the euro zone recover from recession.