The U.S. economy grew at 5.7 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, the highest rate of gross domestic product growth since 2003 and up from 2.2 percent in third quarter. The rise, which beats expectations, was driven by business inventories.
Gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic activity, rose at a 5.7 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, the Commerce Department said Friday. That is the highest pace of growth since 2003, and it constitutes strong proof that the recession reached its end earlier in 2009. It was also a surprisingly positive result, well above the 4.6 percent rate of GDP growth forecasters had expected.
But there remained reason to doubt how strong the economic recovery will be in 2010. The biggest component of the GDP growth was a steep drop in the pace at which businesses were cutting back on their inventories. Firms reduced their inventories by $33.5 billion in the fourth quarter, compared with $139 billion in the third. In the math of GDP, which attempts to capture the value of goods and services produced within U.S. borders, that added 3.4 percentage points to overall growth.
The down side is that inventories are unlikely to provide a similar boost to growth in future quarters. Now that companies are not cutting back on the goods on their warehouses and store shelves in large numbers, the way they were during the depths of the recession, inventories will not add much to growth in the coming quarters unless businesses decide they cut back too far during the downturn and decide to actively rebuild their inventories.
There was also a significant boost to growth from businesses investing again in equipment and software. They cut back dramatically on capital spending during the depths of the recession, and now such spending seems to be clawing back, rising at a 13.3 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter. That contributed 0.8 percentage points to overall growth.
American consumers also continued to increase their spending, at a 2 percent annual rate. Because personal consumption is the largest piece of overall economic activity, that was enough to add 1.4 percentage points to total GDP.