WASHINGTON – Consumers will spend more. Government will cut less. Businesses will invest more. And more companies will hire.
Add it all up, and you can see why expectations are rising that 2014 will be the best year for the U.S. economy since the recession ended 4½ years ago. That's why the Federal Reserve is pressing ahead with a plan to scale back its economic stimulus.
The optimists got a boost Thursday from a government report that showed consumers fueled solid economic growth in the final quarter of 2013. The report lifted hopes that the economy will be able to withstand turmoil in emerging economies, a pullback in the Fed's stimulus and mounting risks to the U.S. stock market over the next 12 months.
Americans struggling with long-term unemployment and stagnant pay might not get relief anytime soon. And areas such as manufacturing, construction and home sales remain far from full health. Still, the outlook for the economy as a whole brightened after the government said growth reached a 3.2 percent annual rate last quarter on the strength of the strongest consumer spending in three years.
"The economy showed real signs of momentum at the end of 2013," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial. "We are better positioned for decent growth for 2014 than we were a year ago."
Consumer spending surged in the October-December quarter at an annual rate of 3.3 percent — the best pace since 2010 and a big jump from the 2 percent growth rate of the previous quarter. Consumer spending is particularly important because it accounts for about 70 percent of the economy.
For 2013 as a whole, the economy grew a tepid 1.9 percent, weaker than the 2.8 percent increase in 2012, the Commerce Department said Thursday. Growth was held back by higher taxes and federal spending cuts that kicked in early in 2013.
A budget deal Congress approved earlier this month halted tens of billions in additional spending cuts that were due to kick in this year. With that drag diminished, many economists think growth could top 3 percent in 2014. That would be the best showing since the 2007-2009 recession.
The strength in consumer spending last quarter was driven by purchases of both durable goods — products such as cars, computers and communications equipment — and nondurable goods like clothing. Spending on services also rose strongly.
In addition, businesses invested in more equipment. There was also strength from a shrinking trade deficit.
Spending on home construction declined, though. And government spending fell at a 4.9 percent rate last quarter, led by a plunge in federal spending.