The 5.7 percent increase in gross domestic product, marked the best performance since the third quarter of 2003, figures from the Commerce Department showed in Washington. Efforts to rebuild depleted inventories contributed 3.4 percentage points to GDP, the most in two decades.
Manufacturers such as Intel Corp. may keep leading the recovery as increasing sales prompt companies to restock. A slowdown in consumer spending last quarter is a reminder that 10 percent unemployment is causing Americans to hold back, one reason why the Federal Reserve is keeping interest rates low and the Obama administration is proposing new plans to create jobs.
For all of 2009, the economy shrank 2.4 percent, the worst single-year performance since 1946.
Consumer spending, which comprises about 70 percent of the economy, rose at a 2 percent pace, more than anticipated following a 2.8 percent increase in the previous three months. Economists projected a 1.8 percent gain, according to the survey median.
Third-quarter purchases received a boost from the government’s auto-incentive program that offered buyers discounts to trade in older cars and trucks for new, more fuel- efficient vehicles. The plan expired in August.
Household purchases dropped 0.6 percent last year, the biggest decrease since 1974.
Increases in production last quarter stemmed the slide in inventories. Stockpiles dropped at a $33.5 billion annual pace following a $139.2 billion decline the previous three months. Inventories declined at a record $160.2 billion pace in the second quarter.
Today’s report showed purchases of equipment and software increased at a 13 percent pace in the fourth quarter, the most since 2006. The gain helped offset a 15 percent drop in commercial construction, leaving total business investment up 2.9 percent over the past three months.
A report yesterday showed companies ordered more capital goods such as machinery and computers in December, indicating business investment will keep expanding.
Jobs is one area where a rebound is still not evident. Payrolls fell by 85,000 last month after a 4,000 gain in November that was the first increase in almost two years. The U.S. has lost 7.2 million since the start of the recession in December 2007, the most of any slowdown in the post-World War II era.
The jobless rate held at 10 percent in December, the Labor Department said on Jan. 8. A jump in the number of discouraged workers leaving the labor market kept the rate from rising.
Fed policy makers, after their meeting this week, said the recovery is gaining strength and business investment appears to be picking up.” They also repeated a pledge to keep the benchmark interest rate low for an extended period.” The central bankers held the overnight lending rate between banks in the range near zero, where it has been for more than a year.
In other areas of the economy, today’s report showed a smaller trade gap contributed 0.5 percentage point to fourth- quarter growth, while government spending was little changed, dropping at a 0.2 percent pace.
Residential construction climbed at a 5.7 percent rate last quarter after expanding at a 19 percent pace in the previous three months.
Inflation held below the Fed’s long-term forecast. The central bank’s preferred price gauge, which is tied to consumer spending and strips out food and energy costs, rose at a 1.4 percent annual pace following a 1.2 percent increase in the prior quarter.
Today’s GDP report is the first for the quarter and will be revised in February and March as more information becomes available.