WASHINGTON - The American economy is growing modestly, with consumers too wary about spending to invigorate the recovery.
That's the picture that emerged from reports Tuesday on the economy and the confidence of consumers, who power 70 per cent of it.
Unemployment and tight credit have sapped shoppers' willingness and ability to spend freely as retailers enter their crucial holiday season. And Americans are expected to grow more cautious about spending next year. That would make for a plodding recovery.
The economy grew at a 2.8 per cent rate last quarter. Forecasts for the current quarter are for similarly lacklustre growth before a drop-off next year.
"It's hardly a rip-roaring recovery," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services. "Usually coming out of a recession you get growth more like a rodeo bull - at a pace of six or seven per cent in the early quarters of recovery. That isn't happening. It is coming out of the stalls more like a fat cow."
The Commerce Department's revised estimate of gross domestic product for July through September was less than the 3.5 per cent growth rate foreseen just a month ago. And the estimate for GDP - the value of goods and services produced in the United States - was a tad less than the 2.9 per cent growth rate that economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected.
The main factors behind the downgrade: Consumers didn't spend as much. Commercial construction weakened. And imports exerted more of a drag on the economy. Businesses also trimmed more of their stockpiles, further restraining growth.
At the same time, the Conference Board's latest survey of consumer confidence found gloom among shoppers.
"I really won't be spending money on Christmas," said Ivan Horne, 47, of Tampa, Fla., who has been out of work for about a year. "I'm barely able to make enough to survive."
An Associated Press-GfK poll released this week found that 93 per cent of Americans say they'll spend less this holiday season or about the same as last year.
Also Tuesday, the Standard&Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index of 20 major cities suggested that the summer's trend of rising home prices is slowing. And analysts expect prices to dip again this winter as foreclosures rise.
The tepid reading on economic growth and consumer confidence caused stocks to retreat from their 13-month highs. Over the past few months, though, the stock market has surged. A rally on Monday carried the Dow up 133 points to its highest point in just over a year.
In part, stocks have been powered by a weak dollar and low interest rates. Lower rates let companies and investors borrow cheaply. They also cause some to shift money out of cash and bonds and into investments that promise higher returns, such as stocks.
Stocks also have benefited from higher corporate profits. Companies have managed to squeeze out more profits without the cost of higher production or payrolls. They've done so by boosting their workers' productivity and drawing down their existing stockpiles of goods.
The GDP report showed the economy finally started to grow again from July through September, after a record four straight losing quarters. Yet growth probably won't be strong enough to quickly drive down the nation's unemployment rate, now at 10.2 per cent.
For the current quarter, some analysts think economic growth will slow to around a 2.5 per cent pace, but it could hit a pace of around 3 per cent if holiday sales turn out better than expected.
Though cautious, consumers are holding up despite high personal debt, a tight job market and hard-to-get credit. A government report out Wednesday is expected to show consumer spending rose 0.5 per cent in October, compared with a 0.5 per cent drop in September. Incomes, the fuel for future spending, are expected to edge up 0.2 per cent, after being flat.
Many economists say they think the economy will weaken again next year. Some project growth at a pace of around 1 per cent as the benefits of the $787 billion stimulus package fade and consumers keep tightening.
"I think when the bills come in January, you'll see consumers pull back," said Brian Bethune, economist at IHS Global Insight. "It's going to be a slow-motion recovery."
In the third quarter, the Cash for Clunkers rebates and an $8,000 tax credit for first-time homebuyers juiced up sales of cars and homes. The clunkers program ended in August. But the tax credit has been extended and expanded beyond first-time buyers.
It's unclear whether the recovery can endure after government supports are gone. If consumers clam up, the economy could tip back into recession.