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German economic growth rate slowed to 0.4 percent last year, slightly short of expectations

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel, German Economy and Energy Minister Sigmar Gabriel and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, from right, chat at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn) (The Associated Press)

The German economy, Europe's biggest, slowed down more than expected last year as other countries' financial troubles and a global economic downturn weighed on exports, official figures showed Wednesday.

The 2013 growth rate of 0.4 percent was the weakest since the German economy shrank in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2009 and compared with a 0.7 percent expansion in 2012. Economists and the government had forecast a 0.5 percent growth rate.

The Federal Statistical Office estimated that the economy grew by around 0.25 percent in the fourth quarter compared with the previous three-month period — about the same as the third-quarter figure of 0.3 percent. However, an official final-quarter growth number won't be released until Feb. 14.

Germany, unlike many other countries in the 18-nation eurozone, avoided recession as the continent struggled to get beyond its debt crisis. Still, the crisis hasn't entirely passed the country by, and last year's economic expansion was fueled entirely by domestic demand.

"The German economy suffered from the continuing recession in some European countries and from restrained growth of the global economy," statistical office head Roderich Egeler said as he presented the preliminary 2013 growth estimate. "The strong domestic demand could offset those factors only to a limited extent."

German exports grew by a feeble 0.6 percent last year, following growth of 3.2 percent in 2012. Imports were up 1.3 percent, little-changed from the previous year's 1.4 percent.

Private consumption, meanwhile, grew 0.9 percent — slightly above the previous year's 0.8 percent. Germans have benefited from a sustained period of low unemployment.

"Overall, we think that there is no reason for massive disappointment today," said Andreas Rees, an economist at UniCredit. "When looking behind the sheer numbers, things were being put on the right track last year for 2014."

The economy is expected to pick up speed this year as the eurozone continues its recovery from recession, and the government's current forecast is for growth of 1.7 percent in 2014. It has forecast that exports — a traditional strength of Germany, which has rejected criticism abroad of its foreign trade surpluses — will be stronger this year.

Germany had a very slight budget deficit of 0.1 percent last year after turning to a surplus of 0.1 percent in 2012, the statistical office said.

Germany's public finances have been helped by strong tax receipts as the economy grows, and the Finance Ministry said Wednesday that the government borrowed less than expected last year — 22.1 billion euros ($30.2 billion), compared with the 25.1 billion it had planned. Federal government spending totaled 307.8 billion euros.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's government has pledged to stop new borrowing in 2015.