TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's economy shrank 3.3 percent in the fourth quarter, the biggest drop since 1974 and further confirmation that the world's second-biggest economy is in a severe recession as the global economic crisis deepens.

It was a bigger fall than the 3.1 percent contraction expected by economists and marked the third consecutive quarter of contraction -- the first time this has happened in Japan in seven years.

Japan's gross domestic product figure translated into an annualized fall of 12.7 percent, exceeding a consensus market forecast for a 11.7 percent contraction, government data showed.

The pace of contraction surpassed an annualized 3.8 percent drop in the United States, which was the biggest fall in nearly 27 years.

In July-September, the Japanese economy shrank 0.6 percent.

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