Economy shows signs of life

ECONOMY SHOWS SIGNS OF LIFE…. Economic activity in last three months of 2010 didn’t quite meet expectations, but it came close, and the result is a GDP report most will find heartening.

The United States economy sped up its growth rate in the fourth quarter, though slightly less than expected, chiefly on the backs of revitalized consumers and a narrowed trade deficit.

Gross domestic product, a broad measure of all the goods and services produced by the economy, grew at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the fourth quarter, up from 2.6 percent in the previous period, according to the Commerce Department.

In terms of the larger context, we’ve now seen six consecutive quarters of economic growth. What’s more, the trend has been moving in the right direction — the third quarter was better than the second, and the fourth was better than the third.

And before Republicans start taking credit for the growing economy — as we’ve seen lately, they really enjoy doing this — it’s worth noting that the tax policy agreement reached with the White House wasn’t signed until the end of the quarter, and hadn’t taken effect when the economy picked up.

Also note, while better growth is obviously good news, 3.2% is still only modest growth. Under normal circumstances, this would point to a fairly healthy economy, humming right along. But given the severity of the Great Recession, our circumstances are anything but normal — to have a robust recovery and make a real dent in the unemployment rate, we’ll still need to do better than this.

Accelerating growth is encouraging, but if you hear policymakers and pundits today use this as an excuse to justify hitting the brakes, please know that they’re completely wrong. We’re slowly getting out of a ditch — pursuing massive budget cuts, taking money out of the economy, and deliberately putting people out of work (i.e., the vision embraced by House Republicans) would very likely push us backwards in a hurry.

And with that, here’s another home-made chart, showing GDP numbers by quarter since the Great Recession began. The red columns show the economy under the Bush administration; the blue columns show the economy under the Obama administration.

gdp4Q2010r.jpg