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By Jamie McGeever
BRASILIA, April 15 (Reuters) - Services activity in Brazil surged in February, expanding at its third fastest rate since comparable records began a decade ago, to lift activity back above pre-pandemic levels from February last year, official figures showed on Thursday.
The figures will be welcomed by policymakers as evidence the economy was firmly on the right track before a deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, and could ease worries that the economy contracted in the first quarter.
The services sector grew by a seasonally adjusted 3.7% on the month, government statistics agency IBGE said, more than double the median estimate of a 1.5% expansion in a Reuters poll of economists.
It was the ninth straight month of expansion, IBGE said, and the third largest since the series began in 2011. Services sector output in February was down a non-seasonally adjusted 2.0% from a year earlier.
Services account for around two-thirds of all activity in Brazil's economy. Although the sector has now recovered the ground lost since the onset of the pandemic last February, it is still 10.8% smaller than its peak in 2014.
All five sub-sectors surveyed grew in February, IBGE said, led by 4.4% growth in transport and related services. This segment grew 8.7% in the first two months of the year and is now 2.8% bigger than its pre-pandemic level of February last year.
"A highlight was logistics services ... due to rising oil and agribusiness exports, and growth in online sales during the pandemic," said IBGE survey manager Rodrigo Lobo.
Services provided to households, including restaurants and hotels, rose 8.8% on the month. That was the biggest single segment increase but was largely due to base effects, IBGE said.
The outlook for the services sector, however, remains blighted by COVID-19. The latest survey data show that confidence and purchasing managers activity in the sector both slumped in March.
(Reporting by Jamie McGeever Editing by Paul Simao)