German imports climbed more sharply than exports in March and industrial output dipped, suggesting that Europe's largest economy might have grown less than economists expected in the first quarter. 

The Federal Statistics Office figures contrasted with generally buoyant sentiment indicators and with news yesterday that demand for goods made in Germany rose by 0.9% in March. 

Gross domestic product (GDP) figures for the three months from January to March are due be published next Wednesday. 

Economists have been forecasting a modest reduction in growth to 0.6% from 0.7% registered in the last three months of 2014. 

Seasonally adjusted exports increased by 1.2% on the month in March, while imports rose by 2.4%, data from the Federal Statistics Office showed today. 

Economists polled by Reuters had predicted a 0.45% rise in exports and an unchanged reading for imports. 

Meanwhile, industrial output fell by 0.5%, separate data from the Economy Ministry showed. Economists had been predicting a 0.4% rise. 

The ministry said industry had had a subdued start to the year, with crucial sectors such as engineering and cars lacking momentum. 

Factories churned out fewer intermediate and capital goods. Increases in consumer goods production and construction activity were the only bright spots. 

German sentiment indicators have generally been strong of late, with business morale at its highest level in almost a year and consumers feeling more optimistic than at any point since late 2001. 

While the mood among investors has weakened, it remains strong. 

Exports have traditionally propelled the German economy, but they have suffered in recent years as demand from weakened euro zone trading partners faltered and crises abroad hurt business confidence. 

Household spending was the key growth driver last year along with resurgent investment, though foreign trade did make a contribution to GDP growth after dragging on it in 2013.