By Paul Hannon

Exports from the eurozone fell in January while imports surged, casting doubt on other indicators that have pointed to a pickup in economic growth during the early months of the year.

The eurozone's economy has been growing since mid-2013, but at a modest pace that has left unemployment high and underlying inflation weak. But surveys of businesses and households released this year suggest growth is picking up, with European Central Bank President Mario Draghi last week declaring his optimism that the recovery is "steadily firming."

However, according to the European Union's statistics agency, goods exports from the eurozone fell by 0.4% from December on a seasonally adjusted basis, while imports jumped by 4.1%. As a result, the eurozone's trade surplus fell to 15.7 billion euros ($16.8 billion) from EUR23.1 billion in December. Without the seasonal adjustment, the eurozone had a trade deficit of EUR600 million in January, having had a surplus of EUR4.8 billion in the same month of 2016.

The drop in exports is not the first development that suggests the eurozone's recovery may not gather momentum in the first quarter, since figures for retail sales showed a surprise fall in January.

Economists worry that higher energy and food prices will weaken consumer spending this year, since wages aren't expected to rise quickly enough to compensate for a loss of real spending power. If they are right, eurozone exporters will need a good year in foreign markets if the economy is not to slow.

While exports and imports can be volatile from month to month, the January fall in export sales is a worrying development. The decline in exports was largely confined to France, where sales to buyers outside the eurozone fell by 19.7% over the month.

Write to Paul Hannon at paul.hannon@wsj.com

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March 17, 2017 06:14 ET (10:14 GMT)

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