By The Associated PressStocks fell early Thursday as a slowdown in Europe overshadowed a flurry of mergers in the U.S. Germany's economy shrank in the final three months of last year. The slowdown in Europe's largest economy deepened the recession across the region. That pulled down European stock markets. American Airlines and U.S. Airways have agreed to combine in an $11 billion deal that creates the world's largest airline. Ketchup maker H.J. Heinz is selling itself for $23 billion to an investment group that includes Warren Buffett. That acquisition follows another $20 billion deal earlier this month â¿¿ Dell Computer's move to take itself private. On the jobs front, the government reported that the number of people seeking unemployment benefits fell by 27,000 last week, an indication that hiring could improve.