BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The euro zone narrowed its trade deficit in January from a year ago, as growth in exports outpaced imports, data showed on Monday, adding to signs that trade could help drive an economic recovery.
The trade deficit of the 17 countries sharing the euro, unadjusted for seasonal swings, was 3.9 billion euros (3.36 billion pounds) in January, the European Union's statistics office Eurostat said.
This was less than the 9.1 billion euro deficit a year earlier, but was slightly more than the 3.5 billion euros forecast by economists in a Reuters poll.
As the bloc stagnates in its second year of recession and suffers from low consumer spending, exports continue to be the main driver of growth, as Chinese and U.S. households buy European-made cars, food, chemicals and medicines.
Eurostat revised down December's trade surplus to 10.8 billion from 11.7 billion euros, but for the whole of 2012, the euro zone recorded an overall 81.1 billion euro surplus, with exports up 7 percent and imports rising 2 percent from 2011.
That compared to a 16 billion euro deficit in 2011.
Europe's biggest exporter, Germany, grew its trade surplus further in 2012 to 186.7 billion euros from 157.4 billion in 2011.
During all of last year, data showed rising exports of manufactured goods like chemicals and vehicles, that offset increasing energy imports.
Italy showed the biggest single improvement in 2012, posting a 11.1 billion euro surplus versus a deficit of 25.5 billion euros a year earlier.
Countries under European Union and International Monetary Fund emergency funding programmes showed improving or stable trade results, as their labour costs fell and they regained some business dynamism.
Portugal's trade deficit fell to 10.7 billion euros for 2012, from 16.4 billion euros in 2011, and Greece's shrank to 20 billion euros from 21 billion. Ireland ended 2012 with a 42.3 billion euro surplus versus 42.5 billion euros a year earlier.
Reporting By Ethan Bilby; editing by Rex Merrifield