GM Tennessee Factory
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By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON -- Robust household spending and rising exports likely kept the U.S. economy on solid ground in the fourth quarter, but stagnant wages could chip away some of the momentum in early 2014.

Gross domestic product probably grew at a 3.2 percent annual rate, according to a Reuters poll of economists.

While that would be a slowdown from the third-quarter's brisk 4.1 percent pace, it would be a far stronger performance than earlier anticipated, and welcome news in light of the drag from October's partial government shutdown and a likely much smaller contribution to growth from a restocking by businesses.

"It looks like the economy was firing on a lot of cylinders in the fourth quarter," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.

Earlier in the quarter many economists were anticipating a growth pace below 2 percent given that an inventory surge accounted for much of the increase in the July-September period.

"We are more than 4½ years into the recovery. Its death has been called a thousand times, it hasn't happened. It comes to a point where people go back to more normal behavior," Ryding said.

If economists' fourth-quarter estimates are correct, growth over the second half of the year would come in at a 3.7 percent pace, up sharply from 1.8 percent in the first six months and well above the 2.2 percent average since the recovery started in mid-2009.

Consumer spending is expected to be the main driver of fourth-quarter growth, but other segments of the economy such as trade and business investment are also seen lending a hand.

The Commerce Department will release its advance fourth-quarter GDP report at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time Thursday,
a day after the Federal Reserve said "growth in economic activity picked up in recent quarters."

On Wednesday, the Fed announced another reduction to its monthly bond purchases and appeared to shrug off a surprise sharp slowdown in job growth in December.

Consumer spending is forecast rising at a pace as fast as 4 percent, which would be the strongest in three years. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, advanced at a 2 percent pace in the third quarter.

Robust Final Demand

The sturdy increase in final demand should put the economy on a stronger growth path this year. However, a lack of wage growth could take some edge off consumer spending early in the year.

A feared inventory correction, which did not materialize in the fourth quarter, is now likely to show up in the first three months of the year and weigh on growth, economists said.

In addition, business investment is expected to moderate, given a surprise tumble in orders for capital goods excluding defense and aircraft in December.

Despite that drop, business spending on equipment likely accelerated in the fourth quarter after rising at only a 0.2 percent pace in the prior three months.

"We are not completely out of the woods. We would really like to see stronger wage growth and corporate investment before declaring full 'escape velocity,' " said Thomas Costerg, a U.S. economist at Standard Chartered Bank in New York.

Even so, a lessening of the fiscal austerity that gripped Washington last year should keep the economy on a firmer growth path. Growth for the whole of this year is forecast at 2.9 percent, up from last year's estimated 1.9 percent.

Wage growth has been stagnant as the economy deals with slack in the labor market. Sluggish wages likely kept inflation pressures benign in the fourth quarter. A price index in the GDP report is expected to have risen at a 0.7 percent rate, decelerating from the third-quarter's 1.9 percent pace.

A core measure that strips out food and energy costs likely rose at a 1.1 percent rate after increasing at a 1.4 percent pace in the July-September period.

The economy in the last quarter also likely got a boost from exports, thanks to firmer global growth. That, together with declining petroleum imports likely narrowed the trade deficit.

Some slowing is expected in the growth of business spending on nonresidential structures in the fourth quarter. A run-up in mortgage rates, which held back home sales and renovations, could see residential investment falling for the first time since the third quarter of 2010.

Government spending probably contracted, reflecting a 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government in October.


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