BANGKOK -- An unexpected contraction in the U.S. economy at the end of 2012 sent world stock markets into retreat Thursday.
The U.S. economy shrank in the fourth quarter for the first time since mid-2009, hurt by big cuts in defense spending, falling exports and sluggish growth in company inventories, the government reported Wednesday. That put the brakes on a Wall Street rally that had pushed the Dow to near-record highs.
"The market has been looking for any excuse to pull back after such an epic month and has taken this news as the main lead for the day," said Evan Lucas of IG Markets in Melbourne in an email commentary.
European stocks opened lower. Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.3 percent to 6,306.17. Germany's DAX shed 0.1 percent at 7,800.71 and France's CAC-40 lost 0.3 percent at 3,755.27.
Stocks futures on Wall Street augured a lower opening, with Dow Jones industrial futures down 0.1 percent at 13,830. S&P 500 futures were down 0.1 percent at 1,494.10.
Most stock markets were lower in Asia. However, the regional heavyweight, Japan's Nikkei 225 index, closed 0.2 percent higher at 11,138.66, recovering from early morning losses sparked by lower-than-expected growth in December's industrial production. Output climbed a seasonally adjusted 2.5 percent from November but most analysts had forecast an improvement of more than 4 percent.
Hong Kong's Hang Seng fell 0.4 percent to 23,729.53. South Korea's Kospi shed 0.1 percent to 1,961.94. Australia's S&P/ASX 200 fell 0.4 percent to 4,878.80, following 10 straight sessions of gains. Benchmarks in Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia fell. Mainland China was mixed. New Zealand rose.
In a statement released after a two-day policy meeting Wednesday, the U.S. Federal Reserve acknowledged that the economy is still struggling to regain momentum. The central bank said that growth had "paused in recent months," and while it was taking no new action, it would keep buying $85 billion of bonds a month.
With the Fed meeting behind them, traders and investors will now turn their focus back to company earnings and Friday's nonfarm employment report. Lucas of IG Markets said he thinks a good jobs report could be just what the markets need to resume their upward momentum.
"If we see positive data there, it will reinforce the idea that the pressure is easing and economic data in the U.S. is continuing to get better," he said.
Among individual stocks, Australia's Whitehaven Coal Ltd. fell 5.5 percent after warning its earnings would be under $10 million in the first half of its financial year. Japanese video-game maker Nintendo Co. fell 4.6 percent after the company lowered its full year sales forecast to 670 billion yen ($7.4 billion) from 810 billion yen ($8.9 billion).
Game machines have taken a beating from the proliferation of smartphones and tablets that also offer games and other entertainment, competing for people's leisure time. Some analysts say the global market for game machines is saturated with offerings from Nintendo, Microsoft Corp., Sony Corp. and others.
The Dow closed down Wednesday after the government reported that the economy shrank an annualized 0.1 percent in the October-December quarter of 2012.
Benchmark oil for March delivery was down 18 cents to $97.76 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The contract rose 37 cents to finish at $97.94 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange
In currencies, the euro fell slightly to $1.3564 from $1.3567 late Wednesday in New York. The dollar fell to 90.93 yen from 91.20 yen.