BUENOS AIRES, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Argentina's economy showed signs of strain in January as the trade surplus narrowed and factory output fell in a month that saw a sharp currency devaluation and inflation rise at its fastest pace in nearly 12 years, government data showed on Friday.
The trade balance in South America's second-largest economy shrank 88 percent in January compared with the same month a year earlier to $35 million, the lowest surplus since March 2001, the national statistics agency INDEC said.
Analysts polled by Reuters had expected a January trade surplus of $346 million.
Argentina devalued its peso currency, which shed over 18 percent of its value in January, sending shudders through global markets. The government also unveiled a new consumer price index in the month, showing inflation rose 3.7 percent in the month.
A healthy trade surplus is particularly crucial for Argentina, which has been virtually shut out of international credit markets after a 2002 default.
In January, industrial production shrank 2.6 percent from the same month in 2013. Factory output, meanwhile, rose 1.6 percent in January from December on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to INDEC.
Auto production, a key pillar of the Argentina economy, slid 13.5 percent in January.
A Reuters poll showed that analysts had forecast a 4.5 percent drop in factory output during the month, according to the median estimate.
Argentina's economic activity rose 2.7 percent in December year-on-year to end 2013 with a 4.9 percent expansion, surpassing market expectations.
The EMAE economic activity index, a close proxy for gross domestic product (GDP), rose a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent in December from November.
December's 2.7 percent year-on-year expansion was the second slowest in all of 2013, following November's 2.2 percent growth rate. But it marked an improvement from the 1.3 percent pace posted in December 2012, when it rose 1.9 percent.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected a 1.4 percent rise in the index in December and 3.1 percent in full-year 2013, compared to the same periods in 2012.