BERLIN German exports hit a new record in September, helping the trade surplus rise to its highest level since June 2008, in a sign Europe's largest economy was still outperforming peers even as clouds gathered over the horizon.
Analysts said the strong data, contrasting with figures from France showing the trade deficit widening more than expected, indicated exports would drive solid third quarter growth.
But trade is likely to be weakening in the last months of the year due to the global slowdown and the uncertainties of the euro zone debt crisis, meaning Germany may no longer be relied on to stimulate regional growth.
"Germany might continue to outperform its neighbours given its strong competitive position, but the key issue is the boost to the wider economy from the external sector is likely to slow over the coming quarters," Ben May from Capital Economics said.
"Even Germany is not insulated from the wider slowdown in the euro zone economy."
Exports rose by 0.9 percent on the month to 91.3 billion euros (78 billion pounds), the highest value on record, data from the Federal Statistics Office showed on Tuesday, countering a Reuters poll forecast for a 1.0 percent drop.
"This offers a gleam of hope after the recent, weak industrial data," said Joerg Lueschow of WestLB. "In the third quarter, we have a good chance of decent growth: we are expecting growth of just under half a percentage point."
Germany recovered swiftly from the 2008/09 financial crisis and has underpinned growth across the region. But fears have grown about whether the expansion has been holding up, given signs from more recently gathered data of a sharp downturn in the euro zone and a slowdown in markets abroad.
Other official data confirmed worries of slowing foreign demand -- industry orders in September took the steepest dive since January 2009 on sharply weaker demand from the euro zone -- and production levels contracted more than expected in September.
"The outlook for the end of 2011 and start of 2012 looks much less rosy," WestLB's Lueschow said. "Foreign demand will weaken, firms will feel the consequences of the debt crisis."
Several German firms, including carmakers Daimler and Volkswagen, have given downbeat forecasts for demand.
Germany's seasonally-adjusted trade surplus rose in September to its highest level since June 2008, widening to 15.3 billion euros from 13.8 billion in the previous month, and smashing the poll forecast for 12.5 billion.
This contrasted with other data on Tuesday showing France's trade deficit widening more than forecast in September as exports dropped.
Volker Treier, the foreign trade chief of the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce (DIHK), said the deep uncertainty over Europe's debt crisis was constraining business.
"Large trade partners such as France and Italy will have to cut back. Companies are therefore withholding orders and are extra careful when it comes to big investments," he said.
German imports fell 0.8 percent on the month in September, versus an expected 0.3 percent increase.
The European Central Bank has said the euro zone could subside into a mild recession in the latter part of this year, and investor sentiment in the bloc dipped to its lowest level in over two years in November, the Sentix research group said on Monday.
Germany last month nearly halved its forecast for growth next year to one percent due to expected weaker exports, noting that domestic demand would become "ever more the pillar of economic growth in Germany."
(Additional reporting by René Wagner; Editing by Anna Willard/Ruth Pitchford)