Jul 30, 9:36 AM EDT

US economy posts solid 2.3 percent growth rate in Q2, helped by strong consumer spending


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The U.S. economy posted a solid rebound in the April-June quarter after a harsh winter, led by a surge in consumer spending and a recovery in foreign trade that bode well for the rest of the year.

It also ended up squeezing out some growth in the first quarter, reversing an earlier estimate that the economy shrank at the start of the year.

The Commerce Department said Thursday that the gross domestic product, the economy's total output of goods and services, grew at a 2.3 percent annual rate in the second quarter. The government also said GDP in the January-March period grew 0.6 percent instead of shrinking at a 0.2 percent pace.

Consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of economic activity, expanded at an annual rate 2.9 percent in the second quarter, a sizable pickup from the 1.8 percent growth in the first quarter.

Economists are looking for overall GDP growth to continue strengthening in the second half of this year to around 3 percent, as consumer spending benefits from sizable employment gains.

The signs of a strengthening job market and expectations of faster growth ahead help explain why the Federal Reserve appears on track to start raising interest rates this year. On Wednesday, the Fed ended its latest policy meeting by keeping a key rate at a record low near zero, where it's remained since 2008.

The Fed said it still needs to see further gains in the job market and feel reasonably confident that low inflation will move back to its 2 percent target rate.

Many economists think the first rate hike will occur in September. Others say it may take the Fed until the end of the year to conclude that the time is right to increase rates.

The second quarter figure was the best showing since a gain of 4.3 percent in the third quarter of last year. The GDP report was the government's first of three estimates.

The government also released GDP revisions for the past three years. The report shows that the economy's already-modest growth since 2011 was even weaker than thought, held back by more frugal consumers and steeper spending cuts by state and local governments. The recovery since the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009 has been the slowest of any since World War II.

The economy expanded at just a 2 percent annual rate from 2012 through 2014, down from a previous estimate of 2.3 percent, the Commerce Department said. Nearly all the weaker-than-expected growth occurred in 2013, when the government now says the economy expanded just 1.5 percent, much less than its previous 2.2 percent estimate.

The modest expansion has raised concerns that the U.S. economy has entered a period of historically slow growth. The nation's workforce is growing at a weaker pace, and employees are less efficient than before the recession, government data show. Those trends could restrain future economic growth.

The changes result from Commerce's annual revisions to its growth data, which are based on updated data from the Census Bureau, IRS and other agencies.

In the second quarter, on top of consumer spending, trade served as a small boost to overall growth. It added 0.1 percentage point to growth after subtracting nearly 2 percentage points in the first quarter. The swing reflected a rebound in export sales, which had plunged in the first quarter, and a slowdown in imports.

Trade in the first quarter was hurt by a labor dispute at West Coast ports and the rising value of the dollar, which was making U.S. goods more expensive in foreign markets.

Business investment, which has been hurt by a sharp cutback at energy companies in response to falling oil prices, fell at an annual rate of 0.6 percent in the first quarter. That reflected in part a drop of 68.2 percent in the category that covers oil and gas exploration activities. That decline followed a 44.5 percent plunge in the first quarter and was the biggest fall in that sector since the spring of 1986.

Housing construction was a bright spot for the economy in the second quarter, rising at a 6.6 percent rate, slightly slower than in the first quarter. The government sector grew at a 0.8 percent rate as gains in spending by state and local governments offset a drop at the federal level.

Businesses added to their stockpiles at a slower pace in the second quarter, translating into a 0.1 percentage point drag on growth.

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