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The sharpest economic contraction on record for the OECD grouping of rich countries struck in the first quarter of this year, the body said on Monday, in its latest gauge of the worldwide downturn.

   Economic growth was minus 2.1 per cent compared to the previous quarter across the 30 member states of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the sharpest contraction since its records began in 1960, it said.

   The figure was based on preliminary estimates for gross domestic product (GDP) and compared with a contraction of two per cent in the previous quarter, it said in a statement.

   The United States saw a 1.6-per cent fall in GDP, the same rate as in the previous quarter, while the quarterly fall accelerated across the 16 countries sharing the euro, to 2.5 per cent.

   Japan’s GDP plunged by four per cent, sharper than the 3.8 per cent drop in the fourth quarter of 2008. Asia’s biggest economy has been hit hard as its exports have flagged in the economic slowdown.

   GDP in the OECD area plunged by 4.2 per cent in the first quarter of 2009 compared to the same period in 2008, dragged down by a huge 9.1 per cent contraction in Japan and 6.9 per cent in Germany.