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After near-stall in late 2012, U.S. economy picks up

In this Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 file photo, Jack Yonally rings out a customer at Lodge's store in Albany, N.Y. The Commerce Department issues its first estimate of how fast the U.S. economy grew in the January-March quarter on Friday, April 26, 2013. (AP Photo/David Duprey)

In this Monday, Feb. 25, 2013 file photo, Jack Yonally rings out a customer at Lodge's store in Albany, N.Y. The Commerce Department issues its first estimate of how fast the U.S. economy grew in the January-March quarter on Friday, April 26, 2013. (AP Photo/David Duprey)

After nearly stalling in late 2012, the American economy quickened its pace early this year despite deep government cutbacks. The strongest consumer spending in two years fueled a 2.5 percent annual growth rate in the January-March quarter.

The question is: Can it last?

Federal spending cuts, higher Social Security taxes and cautious businesses are likely to weigh on the economy in coming months.

Most economists say
they think growth, as measured by the gross domestic product, is slowing in the April-June quarter to an annual rate of about 2 percent. Many predict growth will hover around that subpar level for the rest of the year.

Yesterday’s Commerce Department report on GDP showed that consumers stepped up spending at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the January-March quarter – the biggest such jump since the end of 2010. Growth was also helped by businesses, which responded to the greater demand by rebuilding their stockpiles. And home construction rose further.

Government spending
sank at a 4.1 percent annual rate, led by another deep cut in defense.

Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets, foresees more improvement in the second half of the year.

“The second-half acceleration will be supported by
improved household finances, pent-up demand for autos and the ongoing recovery in
housing,” Guatieri said.
“We are seeing significant housing-related consumer purchases in such areas as furniture.”

GDP is the broadest gauge of the economy’s health. It measures the total output of goods and services produced in the United States, from haircuts and hamburgers to airplanes and automobiles.

The government will provide two updated estimates of first-quarter growth based on more complete data. Whatever the revised data show, estimated first-quarter growth will likely remain far above the economy’s scant 0.4 percent growth rate in the October-December quarter.

This had been expected to be the year when growth would finally reach a more robust 3 percent to 4 percent pace. But across-the-board government spending cuts, which began taking effect March 1, have made that unlikely. The cuts are forcing agencies to furlough workers, reducing spending on public projects and making businesses
nervous about investing and hiring.

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