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Economy Ended 2013 With Growth Still Strong, Data Suggest

Joe Raedle
Getty Images
FedEx employees sorted through mounds of packages in December at one of the company's facilities in Miami. Consumer spending helped fuel the economy in the third quarter. Gross domestic product grew at a 3.2 percent annual rate (a figure that adjusts for holiday spending to show the "real" growth).

The U.S. economy grew at a healthy 3.2 percent annual rate in fourth-quarter 2013, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported Thursday morning.

Coming on the heels of the third quarter's even better 4.1 percent pace, the news suggests the economy finished 2013 in better shape than it had been a year earlier.

A comparison to the last half of 2012 tells that story. In third-quarter 2012, gross domestic product expanded at a 2.8 percent annual pace. In fourth-quarter 2012, growth basically came to a standstill: GDP expanded at a meager 0.1 percent annual rate.

Another positive sign: Reuters notes that while the estimated 3.2 percent growth in the last three months of 2013 was "a slowdown from the third-quarter's brisk 4.1 percent pace, it was a far stronger performance than earlier anticipated." The growth also came despite the 16-day-long partial shutdown of the federal government in October. Reuters says "robust" consumer spending and exports boosted the economy. The data, by the way, are "seasonally adjusted" to hopefully account for typical fluctuations — such as holiday shopping — and reflect the "real" economic activity.

Thursday's GDP report is just the first estimate of how the economy was doing last quarter. The data will be revised twice in the next two months.

As often happens with economic indicators, there's also less positive news to report. The Employment and Training Administration says there were 348,000 first-time claims for unemployment insurance filed last week, up 19,000 from the week before.

Even when the economy is expanding and even when payrolls are growing, there are people being laid off who file jobless claims. But the stubbornly slow growth in employment in recent years has been underscored by the fact that weekly claims for jobless benefits have remained near or above 300,000 since late 2011. There hasn't been a string of weeks below the 300,000-level since early 2006.

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Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.
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