US economy grows at fastest pace in two years

A top loader drives past a row of stacked shipping containers at the Port of Savannah in Savannah, Georgia on Aug 14, 2015.
A top loader drives past a row of stacked shipping containers at the Port of Savannah in Savannah, Georgia on Aug 14, 2015. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG/TY WRIGHT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The US economy grew at its fastest pace in two years in the third quarter as a surge in exports and a rebound in inventory investment offset a slowdown in consumer spending.

Gross domestic product increased at a 2.9 per cent annual rate after expanding at a 1.4 per cent pace in the second quarter, the Commerce Department said on Friday in its first estimate.

That was the strongest growth rate since the third quarter of 2014.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast GDP rising at a 2.5 per cent annual rate in the third quarter.

Despite the moderation in consumer spending, the third-quarter rise in growth could help dispel any lingering fears the economy was at risk of stalling. Over the first half of the year, growth had averaged just 1.1 per cent.

Though the Federal Reserve is mostly focused on employment and inflation, signs of economic strength would be supportive of an interest rate hike in December.

The US central bank raised its benchmark overnight interest rate last December for the first time in nearly a decade.

Consumer spending still supported the economy in the third quarter, even as the pace slowed from the second quarter's robust 4.3 per cent rate.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of US economic activity, increased at a 2.1 per cent rate.

A surge in soybean exports helped to shrink the trade deficit in the third quarter.

Exports increased at a 10 per cent rate, the biggest rise since the fourth quarter of 2013. As a result, trade contributed 0.83 percentage point to GDP growth after adding a mere 0.18 percentage point in the April-June quarter.

There are concerns that the soybean-driven export growth spurt could reverse in the fourth quarter.

Economists, however, also note that exports of capital and consumer goods have been growing strongly in recent months.

Businesses increased spending to restock after running down inventories in the second quarter.

Businesses accumulated inventories at a US$12.6 billion rate in the last quarter, contributing 0.61 percentage point to GDP growth.

Spending on nonresidential structures, which include oil and gas wells, increased at a 5.4 per cent rate in the third quarter, the fastest pace since the second quarter of 2014, after falling at a 2.1 per cent pace in the second quarter.

Investment in mining, exploration, shafts and wells fell at a 31.5 per cent rate in the third quarter after dropping at a 57.4 per cent pace in the second quarter.

Business spending on equipment dropped for a fourth straight quarter, slipping at a 2.7 per cent rate. While the pace of decline has been ebbing as oil prices stabilise and the US dollar's rally gradually fades, a strong turnaround is unlikely in the near-term.

Investment in residential construction fell for a second straight quarter, while spending by the government bounced back.