European stock markets closed higher on Friday as investors found positives in weaker-than-expected US headline growth data, offsetting record Spanish jobless figures that stoked concerns on the eurozone.

US growth slowed sharply to 2.2 per cent in the first quarter from 3.0 per cent in the last three months of 2011 but consumer demand held up strongly, suggesting there was some underlying strength, dealers said.

They said that was enough for Wall Street to stage modest gains, supporting Europe after Spanish unemployment hit a record 24.4 per cent and Standard and Poor’s slashed the country’s rating by two notches.

London’s benchmark FTSE 100 index of top companies closed up 0.49 per cent to 5,777.11 points. In Frankfurt, the DAX 30 gained 0.91 per cent to 6,801.32 points and in Paris the CAC 40 advanced 1.14 per cent to 3,226.27 points.

Madrid, down sharply by 2.65 per cent at the open following the S&P downgrade, confounded the gloomy jobless news to show a gain of 1.69 per cent. Milan too posted strong gains, up 1.85 per cent, despite the problems in Spain which are often lumped together with Italy’s.

Dealers said the headline US growth figures disappointed - analyst forecasts were for around 2.5 per cent - but there were positive elements in the figures and that allowed the gains.

The report ‘‘disappointed, showing output grew at a smaller rate than forecasted but the personal consumption component of the report - the biggest contributor - grew more than expected,’’ Charles Schwab & Co. analysts said.

Dealers said that despite the market gains, investors were undoubtedly cautious after a run of weaker-than-expected data all round and with the eurozone likely already in recession overall.

Spanish 10-year government bond yields - or the rate investors demand in return for handing over their money - briefly topped the psychological six-per cent level, before pulling back, reflecting the concerns over Madrid.

Investors are anxious that the eurozone debt crisis, which has already resulted in vast international bailouts for Ireland, Greece and Portugal, could now sink Madrid, dealers said.

‘‘The rain in Spain is falling mainly on the banks ... and there are dark clouds over the Spanish economy generally,’’ VTB Capital economist Neil MacKinnon told AFP.

Standard and Poor’s downgraded Spain’s sovereign credit rating to BBB-plus and added a negative outlook, warning of recession this year and next, making it even harder to meet deficit-cutting targets.

At the same time, the government was increasingly likely to have to pump in funds to help banks, many of which are still burdened by non-performing loans extended during the property bubble, S&P said. A credit rating downgrade tends to deepen concerns among investors, who in turn demand higher returns.

If borrowing costs become unsustainable for a state, it can be forced to seek an economic rescue.

‘‘The last 24 hours have heaped even more pressure on Madrid,’’ said research director Kathleen Brooks at trading site Forex.com.

‘‘The next phase of the (eurozone) crisis is focusing on Spanish banks which have seen their balance sheets dented by exposure to the collapse in real estate,’’ said MacKinnon.

‘‘The banks have become significantly dependent on European Central Bank funding. The credit rating downgrade adds to market pressures.

‘‘In addition, there is a growing backlash against austerity policies which are imposing depressionary and deflationary conditions on much of the eurozone.’’

Asian stock markets mostly closed lower on Friday. Tokyo fell 0.43 per cent, Hong Kong shed 0.33 per cent, Shanghai dropped 0.35 per cent and Sydney was down 0.30 per cent.

AFP