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US rebounds from recession

The United States rebounded from recession in the third quarter, posting its strongest economic growth in two years as government stimulus spurred consumer spending.

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After four negative quarters, the world’s largest economy grew at a seasonally adjusted 3.5 per cent annual rate in the July-September period from the second quarter, the Commerce Department said.

The increase was the first since the second quarter of 2008 and the strongest expansion since the 2007 third quarter, when a US subprime mortgage crisis triggered a global financial crisis that hammered the world economy.

The expansion followed an unrevised 0.7 per cent decline in the second quarter.

The department’s first estimate of third-quarter gross domestic product (GDP), a broad measure of the country’s output of goods and services, was slightly higher than the 3.2 per cent reading expected by most analysts.

President Barack Obama welcomed the data as “an affirmation that this recession is abating and the steps we’ve taken have made a difference.”

Unemployment a major hurdle

But, he warned: “We have a long way to go to fully restore our economy, and recover from what has been the longest and deepest downturn since the Great Depression.”

“The benchmark I use to measure the strength of our economy is not just whether our GDP is growing, but whether we are creating jobs, whether families are having an easier time paying their bills, whether our businesses are hiring and doing well.”

While a recession is widely regarded as ended by one quarter of economic growth, in the United States the economy will not be officially out of recession until it has been declared by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Unemployment remains a key hurdle to sustained recovery. The jobless rate rose to a new 26-year high of 9.8 percent in September and is expected to hit double digits. Since the official start of recession in December 2007, the number of unemployed has climbed by 7.6 million to 15.1 million.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that new weekly claims for unemployment benefits fell slightly.

“The recession is over, but don’t be fooled by today’s number — the underlying rate of recovery is weaker,” said Nariman Behravesh, chief economist at IHS Global Insight.

Economy ‘on life support’

Behravesh said that underlying growth was closer to 2.0 per cent and predicted momentum would only pick up in the second half of next year as consumers and businesses grow more confident.

After shrinking a sharp 6.4 per cent in the first quarter, the world’s largest economy has been on life support from the federal 787-billion-dollar emergency stimulus and other support measures.

The third-quarter rebound was led by consumer spending, which accounts for two-thirds of US economic activity and added 2.36 percentage points to GDP growth.

Consumer spending surged 3.4 per cent after a 0.9 percent drop in the second quarter, a rise the department said “largely reflected” auto purchases under the government’s popular “cash-for-clunkers” program in July and August.

Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, noted that, excluding the auto sector, consumption grew at a 1.0 per cent annual rate.

Core inflation rate falling

“With disposable income falling due to continued job losses and declining hourly wages, and the reversal of the surge in car sales, consumption growth will almost certainly be negative in the fourth quarter,” Baker said.

Other leading drivers of third-quarter growth were business inventories and home building.

The core inflation rate — which strips out volatile food and energy prices — fell to 1.4 per cent from 2.0 per cent, indicating inflationary pressures remain tame amid economic weakness.

The Federal Reserve, which keeps a close eye on the reading, is widely expected to leave its key interest rate unchanged at nearly zero when policymakers meet on November 3-4.

“If we do indeed get a second consecutive quarter of good growth, there will be a lot of pressure on the Fed to start raising rates,” said Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors.

“Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if the markets start pricing that into bond yields during the rest of the year.”