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US growth in Q4 is unrevised at 2.1%, but bumpy road ahead

Economists expect novel coronavirus epidemic to hit struggling manufacturing sector, as well as services sector

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Despite the unrevised reading to last quarter's GDP growth, which was in line with economists' expectations, consumer spending slowed more than previously reported.

Washington 

THE US economy grew moderately in the fourth quarter, the government confirmed on Thursday, and is facing a bumpy road in early 2020 amid the fast-spreading deadly novel coronavirus that has roiled financial markets.

Gross domestic product increased at a 2.1 per cent annualised rate, supported by a smaller import bill, the Commerce Department said in its second estimate of Q4 GDP. That was unrevised from last month's advance estimate and matched the growth pace logged in the July-September quarter.

The economy grew by an unrevised 2.3 per cent in 2019, the slowest annual growth in three years and missing the Trump administration's 3 per cent growth target for a second straight year.

Financial markets have been spooked by fears that the novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 2,000 people, mostly in China, and spread to other countries, could undercut the longest US economic expansion on record, now in its 11th year.

Risky assets such as stocks have been sold off in favour of safe-haven government bonds. Money markets have boosted their bets on the prospect of more Federal Reserve interest rate cuts.

The US central bank cut rates three times last year and has signalled its intention to keep monetary policy on hold at least through 2020.

Though there is so far no real evidence that the novel coronavirus epidemic is impacting the US economy, economists expect the struggling manufacturing sector to take a hit through supply chain disruptions and exports. Pain for the services sector could come via the travel and tourism industry.

The stock market sell-off if it persists could erode consumer confidence and hurt consumer spending, which is already slowing.

Economists also worry that corporate profits could come under pressure and lead to layoffs and a slowdown in hiring. The labour market is the economy's main pillar of support.

President Donald Trump on Wednesday assured Americans the risk from novel coronavirus remained "very low", and said public health officials were preparing to do "whatever we have to", to deal with the outbreak.

Despite the unrevised reading to last quarter's GDP growth, which was in line with economists' expectations, consumer spending slowed more than previously reported. There were also downgrades to business investment and government spending. That offset upward revisions to investment in homebuilding and inventory accumulation.

Excluding trade, inventories and government spending, the economy grew at a 1.3 per cent rate in Q4, the slowest in four years. This measure of domestic demand was previously reported to have risen at a 1.4 per cent pace in Q4.

Business investment fell at a steeper 2.3 per cent rate in Q4, instead of the previously reported 1.5 per cent pace. It was the third straight quarterly decline and the longest such stretch since 2009. There were downward revisions last quarter to spending on equipment. REUTERS