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Sagging European economies crimp stock markets

HONG KONG--A contraction in Germany's economy and stagnation in France dragged on European stocks Thursday while Asian markets ended mixed.

France's CAC 40 lost 0.4 percent to 4,176.03 and Germany's DAX shed 0.4 percent to 9,164.92. Britain's FTSE 100 edged up 0.1 percent to 6,661.95. U.S. shares were set to drift lower, with Dow futures slipping 0.1 percent to 16,606. S&P 500 futures dipped 0.1 percent to 1,943.60.

The latest growth figures from two major economies cast doubt over Europe's recovery. The Germany economy lost momentum, shrinking by 0.2 percent in the April-June period, while the French economy stagnated for second straight quarter, official reports showed.

Investors are looking ahead to more hints on the health of the global economy with the release of U.S. unemployment benefit applications later Thursday. They come a day after U.S. retail sales edged up a tiny amount compared with the month before, fueling hopes that the Fed will maintain stimulus.

Asian markets were mixed Thursday despite positive cues from Wall Street as traders digested a slew of soft data including a weaker-than-expected report on retail sales in the world's largest economy.

Tokyo closed up 0.66 percent, or 100.94 points, to 15,314.57, Sydney gained 0.61 percent, or 33.78 points, to 5,548.5 while Hong Kong lost 0.36 percent, or 88.98 points, to 24,801.36 and Shanghai dropped 0.74 percent, or 16.41 points, to 2,206.47.

Seoul ended flat, edging up 0.86 points to 2,063.22 after South Korea's central bank cut interest rates for the first time in 15 months, under growing government pressure including warnings of recession from the new finance minister.

The mixed performance came despite a strong lead from Wall Street, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Wednesday finished up 0.55 percent at 16,651.80, with investors discounting a lackluster U.S. retail sales report.

Retail sales were virtually unchanged in July from the prior month and, excluding the automobile sector, edged up just 0.1 percent, the Commerce Department said.

The report was weaker than analysts expected, and highlighted the fragile state of the U.S. economy where wage growth is minimal and unemployment, though easing, remains high.

Investors in Asia were also still digesting other disappointing regional data posted on Wednesday.

Statistics showed Japan's economy suffered its biggest quarterly contraction since the 2011 quake and tsunami, while in China industrial output and retail sales numbers came in slightly slower in July than the previous month's data.

On Thursday, the Bank of Korea cut its benchmark rate by 25 basis points to 2.25 percent. It was the first rate cut since May 2013.

The move came after the finance ministry last month unveiled a US$40 billion stimulus package and revised its 2014 economic growth forecast down from 4.1 percent to 3.7.

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