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US economic growth slows to a 0.7% rate in Q4

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US economic growth braked sharply in the fourth quarter as businesses stepped up efforts to reduce an inventory glut and a strong dollar and tepid global demand weighed on exports.

[WASHINGTON] US economic growth braked sharply in the fourth quarter as businesses stepped up efforts to reduce an inventory glut and a strong dollar and tepid global demand weighed on exports.

Gross domestic product increased at a 0.7 per cent annual rate, the Commerce Department said on Friday, also as lower oil prices continued to undermine investment by energy firms and unseasonably mild weather cut into consumer spending on utilities and apparel.

The growth pace was in line with economists' expectations and followed a 2 per cent rate in the third quarter. The economy grew 2.4 per cent in 2015 after a similar expansion in 2014.

But some of the impediments to growth - inventories and mild temperatures - are temporary and the economy is expected to snap back in the first quarter. Excluding inventories and trade, the economy grew at a 1.6 per cent pace.

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Nevertheless, the GDP report could spark a fresh wave of selling on the stock market, which has been roiled by fears of anemic growth in both the United States and China.

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday acknowledged that growth"slowed late last year," but also noted that "labour market conditions improved further." The Fed, the U.S. central bank, raised interest rates in December for the first time since June 2006. Though the Fed has not ruled out another hike in March, financial markets volatility could see that delayed until June.

In the fourth quarter, businesses accumulated US$68.6 billion worth of inventory. While that is down from $85.5 billion in the third quarter, it was a bit more than economists had expected, suggesting inventories could remain a drag on growth in the first quarter.

The small inventory build subtracted 0.45 percentage point from the first estimate of fourth-quarter GDP growth.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of US economic activity, increased at a 2.2 per cent rate. That marked a step-down from the 3.0 per cent pace notched in the third quarter.

Unusually mild weather hurt sales of winter apparel in December and undermined demand for heating through the quarter.

With gasoline prices around $2 per gallon, a tightening labour market gradually lifting wages and house prices boosting household wealth, economists believe the slowdown in consumer spending will be short-lived.

The dollar, which has gained 11 per cent against the currencies of the United States' trading partners since last January, likely remained a drag on exports, leading to a trade deficit that subtracted 0.47 percentage point from GDP growth in the fourth quarter.

The downturn in energy sector investment put more pressure on business spending on nonresidential structures. Spending on mining exploration, wells and shafts plunged at a 38.7 per cent rate after dropping at a 47.0 per cent pace in the third quarter.

Investment in mining exploration, wells and shafts fell 35 per cent in 2015, the largest drop since 1986.

Oil prices have dropped more than 60 per cent since mid-2014, forcing oil field companies such as Schlumberger and Halliburton to slash their capital spending budgets.

Business spending on equipment contracted at a 2.5 per cent rate last quarter after rising at a 9.9 per cent pace in the third quarter. Investment in residential construction remained a bright spot, rising at a 8.1 per cent rate.

With consumer spending softening, inflation likely retreated in the fourth quarter. A price index in the GDP report that strips out food and energy costs increased at a 1.2 per cent rate, slowing from a 1.4 per cent pace in the third quarter.

REUTERS

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