Gross domestic product contracted at a 0.3 percent pace from July to September, according to a Commerce Department report today in Washington. The decline was smaller than forecast and stocks rose. Even so, the economy may be in for a larger drop this quarter after the record two-decade expansion in consumer spending came to an end.
The Federal Reserve yesterday warned of further ``downside risks'' even after cutting interest rates twice this month and pumping billions of dollars into markets.
The slump last quarter was the biggest since the third quarter of 2001, and follows a 2.8 percent growth rate the previous three months.
GDP was forecast to drop at a 0.5 percent pace in the third quarter, according to the median forecast of 75 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. Estimates ranged from a 1.2 percent rate of expansion to a contraction of 1.9 percent.
The report is the first for the quarter and will be revised in November and December as more information becomes available.
Consumer spending dropped at a 3.1 percent annual pace, the first decline since 1991 and the biggest since 1980, after President Jimmy Carter imposed credit controls. The median forecast was for a 2.4 percent drop.
The 6.4 percent rate of decline in spending on non-durable goods, like clothing and food, was the biggest since 1950.
Consumers have been hit by a triple whammy: rising unemployment, tightening credit and shrinking wealth.
Unemployment is at a five-year high of 6.1 percent and may rise to 8 percent by end of 2009, according to Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist at Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York. Consumer borrowing fell in August by the most on record as banks tightened credit. And the steep drop in the stock market so far this quarter has wiped about $2.8 trillion from investors' portfolios.
Cutbacks in investments in business equipment and less spending on residential construction projects also contributed to last quarter's contraction, today's report showed.
A narrower trade deficit and a smaller decline in inventories prevented a deeper contraction. Excluding those two categories, the economy would have contracted at a 1.8 percent pace, the most since 1991.
The report also showed what may be the last burst of inflation before the economic slowdown forces companies to limit price increases. The price gauge rose at a 4.2 percent pace last quarter, the biggest gain in 17 years. Costs tied to consumer spending and excluding food and energy, increased 2.9 percent, the most in two years.
The Fed yesterday cut the benchmark interest rate by a half percentage point to 1 percent, matching a half-century low, and projected inflation would ebb.