U.S. economy grows for first time since spring 2008

WASHINGTON — The economy grew at a 3.5 percent pace in the third quarter, the best showing in two years, fueled by government-supported spending on cars and homes. It’s the strongest signal yet that the economy has entered a new, though fragile, phase of recovery and that the worst recession since the 1930s has ended.

Going forward, many analysts expect the pace of the budding recovery to be plodding due to rising unemployment and continuing difficulties by both consumers and businesses to secure loans.

“This welcome milestone is just another step, and we still have a long road to travel until the economy is fully recovered,” said Christina Romer, President Barack Obama’s chief economist. “It will take sustained, robust … growth to bring the unemployment rate down substantially. Such a decline in unemployment is, of course, what we are all working to achieve.”

The much-awaited turnaround reported Thursday by the Commerce Department ended the streak of four straight quarters of contracting economic activity, the first time that’s happened on records dating to 1947.

It also marked the first increase since the spring of 2008, when the economy experienced a short-lived uptick in growth.

The third-quarter’s performance — the strongest since right before the country fell into recession in December 2007 — was slightly better than the 3.3 percent growth rate economists expected.

Armed with cash from government support programs, consumers led the rebound in the third quarter, snapping up cars and homes.

Consumer spending on big-ticket manufactured goods soared at an annualized rate of 22.3 percent in the third quarter, the most since the end of 2001. The jump largely reflected car purchases spurred by the government’s Cash for Clunkers program that offered a rebate of up to $4,500 to buy new cars and trade in old gas guzzlers.

The housing market also turned a corner in the summer. Spending on housing projects jumped at an annualized pace of 23.4 percent, the largest jump since 1986. It was the first time since the end of 2005 that spending on housing was positive. Purchases of home furnishings and appliances also added to economic growth.

The government’s $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers supported the housing rebound. Congress is considering extending the credit, which expires on Nov. 30.

[This report was written by Associated Press reporter Jeannine Aversa.]

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