US economic growth quickened last quarter with inventory boost

WASHINGTON • US economic growth accelerated by more than forecast in the final three months of last year, fuelled by the rebuilding of inventories and a pickup in consumer spending.

Gross domestic product expanded at a 6.9 per cent annualised rate following a 2.3 per cent pace in the third quarter, the Commerce Department's preliminary estimate showed yesterday. That was the strongest quarterly growth in over a year.

The median forecast in a Bloomberg survey of economists called for a 5.5 per cent increase in GDP.

The personal consumption expenditures price index excluding food and energy, an inflation measure followed closely by Federal Reserve officials, grew an annualised 4.9 per cent last quarter.

Inventories, which added 4.9 percentage points to GDP growth last quarter, are expected to remain a tailwind for economic growth this year.

Faced with persistent supply shortages, businesses had been relying on inventories to keep up with the robust merchandise demand seen throughout 2021.

Companies are now beginning to restock, which will help bolster production. That is possible in part because personal consumption - while still solid - has cooled from the red-hot pace seen in the first half of 2021.

Consumer outlays, the biggest part of the economy, grew at a 3.3 per cent pace last quarter, in line with estimates and up from 2 per cent in the prior period.

However, other economic data suggests that strength was concentrated at the start of the fourth quarter as Americans pulled forward their holiday shopping to navigate shipping delays and a surge in Covid-19 cases curbed demand for services late in the year.

Figures on Wednesday showed a surge in retail and wholesaler stockpiles in December, which may reflect imports that arrived too late for holiday shoppers and the Omicron-related dip in activity.

Real final sales to domestic purchasers, a measure of underlying demand that strips out the trade and inventories components of GDP, increased at a 1.9 per cent pace in the final three months of the year, just slightly ahead of the 1.3 per cent rate seen in the third quarter.

The highly contagious Omicron variant has stifled economic growth in the near-term as record levels of infections keep many Americans at home, denting demand and further disrupting supply chains.

Looking beyond the first quarter though, many economists expect solid growth this year amid expectations of an easing in inflationary pressures and supply-chain challenges.

But to what extent inflation actually subsides is unclear. Fed chair Jerome Powell said on Wednesday after the central bank's first policy meeting of the year that officials are ready to raise interest rates in March to arrest persistent price pressures.

"We have an expectation about the way the economy's going to evolve but we've got to be in a position to address different outcomes, including the one where inflation remains higher," Mr Powell said during a virtual press conference after the policy meeting.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2022, with the headline US economic growth quickened last quarter with inventory boost. Subscribe