LONDON (Reuters) - Global business activity expanded at its weakest rate in over three years in February despite firms cutting prices for the first time since September, business surveys showed on Thursday.
The U.S. service sector contracted for the first time since October 2013, euro zone businesses had their worst month in over a year, and China's service sector growth slowed.
Thursday's downbeat surveys come just days after reports showed manufacturing output across much of Asia shrank in February and faded throughout Europe and the Americas.
JPMorgan's Global All-Industry Output Index, produced with private data vendor Markit, slumped to 50.6 in February from January's 52.6, its lowest reading since October 2012 when it nudged above the 50 mark that divides growth from contraction.
"February's PMI surveys further highlight the broad-based weakness in global growth during the opening quarter of 2016," said David Hensley, a director at JPMorgan.
A purchasing managers index (PMI) covering the global service industry fell to a 40-month low of 50.7 from 52.8.
In the U.S., private data vendor Markit said its service sector purchasing managers index (PMI) fell to 49.7 in February from 53.2 in January and is now below the 50 level that separates growth from contraction for the first time since October 2013.
Markit's composite index of both manufacturing and service sector activity fell to 50.0 from 53.2 in January.
An alternative reading from the U.S. Institute of Supply Management (ISM) showed service sector activity still growing in February, but at a slower pace and employment in the sector declined for the first time in two years.
ISM said its index of non-manufacturing activity fell to 53.4 from 53.5 the month before, while the employment index fell to 49.7 from 52.1 a month earlier, marking the first fall in service-sector employment since February 2014.
The U.S. dollar fell sharply against the euro on Thursday after the data showed a decline in U.S. service sector employment. [USD/]
"The data this morning was weak enough to add a touch of concern to the market," said Jason Leinwand, managing director at Riverside Risk Advisors in New York. "The market is definitely leaning away more and more from the prospects of a Fed hike this year."
The U.S. Federal Reserve raised interest rates for the first time in a decade in December, but is not expected to raise rates again at its March policy meeting.
Activity in the service sector of Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, plunged in February at the fastest pace on record, according to a survey by HSBC/Markit, as Brazil suffers from its worst economic crisis in over a century.
The HSBC/Markit service sector PMI Brazil fell 36.9 in February from 44.4 in January.
The deeper contraction in services, along with an accelerating decline among manufacturers, dragged Markit's composite Brazil index to 39.0 in February from 45.1 in January.
Brazil's gross domestic product shrank 3.8 percent in 2015, capped by another steep contraction in the fourth quarter, according to statistics agency IBGE on Thursday.
"The Brazilian economic downturn took a real turn for the worse in February," said Rob Dobson, a senior economist at Markit. "The labor market also appears to be in dire straits, as manufacturers and service providers reported further substantial reductions to headcounts."
Euro zone businesses had their worst month in over a year in February which, coupled with further signs of deflationary pressures, is likely to solidify expectations for further monetary policy easing.
Markit's euro zone composite PMI, seen as a good guide to economic growth, fell to 53.0 last month from January's 53.6, its lowest reading since the start of 2015, but was still over the 50 mark that denotes growth.
"The slowdown in growth of business activity, accompanied by a similar easing in the pace of job creation and the steepest fall in prices charged for a year, suggest that the region's recovery is losing momentum," said Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit.
Another cut in the already-negative deposit rate is likely when the ECB meets on March 10. A Thursday Reuters poll gave a 60 percent chance the central bank would also expand its bond-buying program from 60 billion euros a month [ECB/INT].
The prospect of Britain voting to leave the European Union at a referendum in June sent shivers through the boardrooms of the country's dominant services sector last month, sending growth to a three-year low.
The Markit/CIPS UK services purchasing managers' index slumped to 52.7 from 55.6 in January, the weakest reading since March 2013.
The news halted sterling's recovery against the U.S. dollar over the last few days, following last week's Brexit-driven sell-off. [GBP/]
"Survey responses reveal that firms are worried about signs of faltering demand, but boardrooms have also become unsettled by concerns regarding the increased risk of Brexit, financial market volatility and weak economic growth at home and abroad," said Markit's Chris Williamson.
British gross domestic product now looks likely to expand by just 0.3 percent in the first quarter of 2016, according to Markit, a slowdown from 0.5 percent in the final three months of 2015 and its poorest performance since late 2012.
The Bank of England was once expected to be the first major central bank to tighten policy but now it is not expected to act until the end of the year, and Thursday's readings may push the forecasts even further out [ECILT/GB].
Growth in China's services activity slowed in February, adding to risks for policymakers in Beijing who are counting on robust growth in the sector to offset a planned overhaul of bloated state companies.
The Caixin/Markit PMI fell to 51.2 in February from a six-month high of 52.4 in January.
But a composite Caixin output index covering both manufacturing and services fell below the 50-point level in February, suggesting weakness in the manufacturing sector was overcoming the contribution from the services sector.
He Fan, chief economist at Caixin Insight Group, said further government measures were need to boosted the services sector and improve balance in the economy.
"While implementing measures to stabilize economic growth, the government needs to push forward reform on the supply side in the services sector to release its potential," he said.
China said on Monday it expects to lay off 1.8 million workers in the coal and steel industries, or about 15 percent of the workforce, as part of efforts to reduce a capacity glut, but no timeframe was given.
Reuters reported this week that China aims to lay off 5-6 million state workers in two to three years to curb industrial overcapacity and pollution.
China's central bank injected an estimated $100 billion worth of long-term cash into the banking system on Tuesday..
Activity in Japan's services sector expanded in February at the slowest pace in seven months as new business weakened. The Markit/Nikkei Japan services PMI fell to 51.2 from 52.4 in January, and is now at the lowest since July last year.
Additional reporting by Winni Zhou and Nicholas Heath in Beijing, Stanley White in Tokyo, Andy Bruce in London, Dan Burns in New York and Brad Haynes in Brazil; Editing by Ross Finley, Larry King and Clive McKeef