April 17, 2024

U.S. Growth Rate Picks Up to 2%

The pickup in spending by consumers, along with a burst of defense orders and a stronger housing market, helped the economy expand at an annual rate of 2 percent in the third quarter, a slightly better pace than had been anticipated, according to government data released Friday. In the previous quarter, economic growth had dipped to a rate of just 1.3 percent.

While growing more confident that the housing market has stabilized, households have been buoyed by lower energy prices, until recently a rising stock market and a slight improvement in employment. After years of shedding debt, there are also signs that consumers are starting to borrow again.

“Consumers are feeling wealthier so they are still out there spending,” said Joshua Dennerlein, an economist with Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Still, the pace of economic activity is short of what’s needed to substantially reduce the unemployment rate, now at 7.8 percent and also well below the level of growth typical in this stage of a recovery after a sharp downturn.

What’s more, fears are growing that the economy could slow again in the fourth quarter. Companies are preparing for the possibility of steep tax increases and sharp spending cuts if Congress cannot agree on a deal to reduce the deficit after the election, a combination of factors frequently referred to as the fiscal cliff.

In fact, a series of disappointing earnings reports from the nation’s biggest companies this week, along with a handful of layoff announcements from corporate bellwethers, suggest businesses have already begun to retrench.

With the presidential campaign entering the final, desperate dash to Election Day, there was plenty of fodder in Friday’s report for both candidates to cite as they spar over the direction of the economy.

For President Obama, the best news was that consumer spending grew at an annual rate of 2 percent last quarter, up from 1.5 percent in the second quarter, while residential investment increased at an annual rate of 14.4 percent, compared with 8.5 percent in the second quarter.

The business snapshot was much dimmer. The report showed that business investment fell 1.3 percent, a reversal from the 3.6 percent increase recorded in the second quarter, and a sign businesses are indeed clamping down on spending ahead of the fiscal cliff.

Inventories also were a notable factor with the summer drought in the Midwest shaving overall growth 0.4 percentage point as farm inventories dropped.

In addition to the uncertainty about government policy, corporate performance has been hurt by a recession in parts of Europe and weaker demand from China. Some economists fear that all these factors will keep a lid on growth in the final quarter of 2012 and the first quarter of next year.

The Commerce Department data showed exports decreased by 1.6 percent in the latest quarter, compared with a 5.3 percent increase in the second quarter. It was the first time exports had fallen since the first quarter of 2009, when the global economy was reeling from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the ensuing financial crisis in the United States.

At a campaign appearance in Iowa, Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, termed Friday’s report “discouraging,” adding, “slow economic growth means slow job growth and declining take-home pay.”

The new figure, released by the Commerce Department, is the government’s first estimate of growth in the third quarter. Slightly better than the 1.8 percent increase economists had been forecasting, it showed the nation rebounding to the growth it had in the first quarter of the year after a spring slump.

“The report highlights the fact that businesses have already begun to react to the looming fiscal cliff while consumers march steadily ahead,” said Mr. Dennerlein. Noting the jump in residential spending, he added that the slowly recovering housing sector is a bright spot.

Housing values and stock values certainly contribute to consumers’ sense of financial well-being. And despite the hesitancy among businesses, optimism among consumers continues to rise. A separate survey released Friday showed consumer sentiment at its highest level in more than five years, with the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan index rising to 82.6 in October from 78.3 in September, though it was lower than a preliminary October reading of 83.1 that had been previously reported.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/27/business/economy/us-economy-grew-at-2-rate-in-3rd-quarter.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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