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Growth better, but still subpar

WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy grew at a slightly faster but still anemic rate at the end of last year. However, there is hope that growth accelerated in early 2013 despite higher taxes and cuts in government spending.

The economy grew at an annual rate of 0.4 percent in the October-December quarter, the Commerce Department said Thursday. That was slightly better than the previous estimate of 0.1 percent growth. The revision reflected stronger business investment and export sales.

Analysts think the economy is growing at a rate of about 2.5 percent in the January-March quarter, which ends this week.

Steady hiring has kept consumers spending this year. And a rebound in company stockpiling, further gains in housing and more business spending also likely drove faster growth in the first quarter.

The 0.4 percent growth rate for the gross domestic product, or GDP, the economy's total output of goods and services, was the weakest quarterly performance in almost two years and followed a much faster 3.1 percent increase in the third quarter. The fourth quarter was hurt by the sharpest fall in defense spending in 40 years.

For all of 2012, the economy grew 2.2 percent after a 1.8 percent increase in 2011 and a 2.4 percent advance in 2010. Since the recession ended in mid 2009, the economy has been expanding at subpar rates as a string of problems have acted as a drag on the U.S. economy.

Growth appears to be strengthening this year even after taxes increased Jan. 1 and automatic government spending cuts totaling $85 billion started to take effect on March 1. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the combination of tax increases and spending cuts could trim economic growth this year by about 1.5 percentage points. The CBO is predicting just 1.5 percent growth for 2013.

But so far, the economy is showing signs of holding its own against the fiscal drag.

Employers have added an average of 200,000 jobs a month since November. That helped lower the unemployment rate in February to 7.7 percent, a four-year low.

Sales of previously occupied homes rose in February to the highest level in nearly three years, while builders broke ground on more houses and apartments. Annual home prices jumped in January by the most since June 2006, according to a closely watched measure.

Jobless claims rise

The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits jumped 16,000 last week, the second straight weekly increase. Applications increased to a seasonally adjusted 357,000 for the week ending March 23, the Labor Department said Thursday, up from 341,000 the previous week. The four-week average, a less volatile measure, rose 2,250 to 343,000. Even with the gain, the average is only slightly higher than the previous week's five-year low of 340,750. Economists pay closer attention to the four-week average because it smooths out week-to-week fluctuations.

Growth better, but still subpar 03/28/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 28, 2013 9:44pm]
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