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Workers at Ludwigsfelde Daimler-Mercedes plant.

Doug Saunders/Doug Saunders/The Globe and Mail

The shadows over the global economy darkened this month as the euro zone's private sector contracted, U.S. manufacturing growth slowed and China's once-booming factories faltered, surveys showed on Thursday.

In Europe, a downturn that started in smaller states on the euro zone's periphery is now taking root in the core countries of Germany and France, where tepid growth had been the main ballast of support for the euro area economy.

"We are very much in a period of weakening global growth. It doesn't quite feel like 2008 yet but the danger is we could get there quicker than we think," said Peter Dixon at Commerzbank.

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The euro zone composite PMI, comprising the services and manufacturing sectors, fell to 45.9 from April's 46.7, its lowest reading since June 2009 and its ninth month below the 50-mark that divides growth from contraction.

The data sent German Bund futures to a record high as investors sought relative safety, and the euro neared a two-year low against the dollar.

Wednesday's news that European Union leaders have been advised by senior officials to prepare contingency plans in case Greece quits the single currency also hurt the euro.

Europe's woes were felt across the Atlantic.

Financial information firm Markit's "flash" U.S. manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index slipped to 53.9 in May from 56.0, with slower export sales sapping momentum.

Markit, which also compiles the euro zone PMIs, released its U.S. index for the first time on Thursday but has been tracking data in the entire sector since late 2009.

"The cause seems to lie largely with weak export sales, which likely reflects the deteriorating economic situation in Europe as well as slower growth in China," said Markit chief economist Chris Williamson.

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HSBC's Flash China PMI, the earliest indicator of China's industrial sector, retreated to 48.7 in May from a final reading of 49.3 in April. It marked the seventh straight month that the index has been below 50.

The figures signal that the sluggish economic conditions of the first quarter are set to continue throughout the first half of the year in China's longest slowdown since the global financial crisis.

"The series of highly disappointing April activity data - exports, imports, industrial production and retail sales indicators all fell short of even the most pessimistic forecasts - the first gauge for economic activity in the current month is a further signal that internal and external headwinds are still biting into economic momentum," said Nikolaus Keis at UniCredit.

The HSBC PMI has provided a contrast to the Chinese government's official PMI, which includes more state-owned firms with better access to credit. The government PMI hit a 13-month high of 53.3 in April as exports ticked higher although domestic orders showed signs of weakness.

Manufacturing has been a bright spot for the U.S. economy, with the Markit index showing the sector has expanded for 32 straight months. The U.S. PMI index's average reading in 2011 was 54.3.

But as the pace of hiring across the economy has slowed in recent months, economists worry about whether demand will hold up this summer.

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"We are seeing slower growth globally, including China," said Sam Bullard, senior economist at Wells Fargo in Charlotte, North Carolina. "Manufacturers remain cautious. We have seen evidence of softer equipment demand in the first quarter and that softness will likely continue into the second quarter."

Separate data showed orders for long-lasting U.S. durable goods rose less than expected as firms scaled back plans to add machinery and the military ordered fewer aircraft.

Meanwhile, first-time applications for U.S. jobless benefits fell slightly in the latest week, the Labor Department said on Thursday, though data earlier this month showed employers in April added the fewest new jobs to their payrolls since October.

In Europe, even the core countries are running into trouble. The manufacturing sector in Germany, Europe's largest economy, contracted at a far greater pace than was expected, and its service sector saw minimal growth. In France, both sectors contracted faster than predicted by most economists.

German business sentiment also dropped for the first time in seven months in May, the Ifo think tank said, missing even the most conservative forecasts.

Across the channel, Britain's economy shrank by more than initially thought between January and March, hit by the deepest fall in construction output in three years.

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For the euro zone, Markit said the composite reading was consistent with gross domestic product, which stagnated in the first quarter, falling by at least 0.5 percent across the region in the current quarter.

"The flash PMI figures for May look horrible and provide a clear warning that euro zone GDP will almost certainly show a contraction in Q2 after stagnating in Q1," said Martin van Vliet at ING.

Mr. Dixon said, "It clearly indicates that the evaporating sentiment seen in recent weeks as the Greece crisis has intensified is having a big impact on the economy."

The prospect of a Greek exit from the euro zone is now being openly discussed as the country battles political and economic upheaval and faces an election on June 17.

Two recent Reuters polls of money market traders and economists each had slim majorities saying Greece would still be a member of the 17-nation bloc at the end of the end of 2013.

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