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Crews load and unload consumer products at the Port of New Orleans along the Mississippi River in New Orleans, in this file photo. (SEAN GARDNER/REUTERS)
Crews load and unload consumer products at the Port of New Orleans along the Mississippi River in New Orleans, in this file photo. (SEAN GARDNER/REUTERS)

U.S. economy stalls in first quarter, inventories and trade weigh Add to ...

The U.S. economy barely grew in the first quarter as the severe winter hampered exports and led businesses to curtail investment spending, but activity already appears to be bouncing back.

Gross domestic product expanded at a 0.1 per cent annual rate, the slowest since the fourth quarter of 2012, the Commerce Department said on Wednesday.

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“This quarter was impacted heavily by the weather. Growth is down, but not out, not by a long shot, and we look for it to quicken later on in the spring,” said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in New York.

The slowdown, which also reflected the slowest inventory accumulation in nearly a year, was much sharper than Wall Street had braced for. Economists expected a 1.2 per cent gain.

It suggested the economy could struggle to achieve the 3 per cent break-out growth that had been widely anticipated this year, but did little to alter forecasts for coming quarters.

U.S. stocks were little changed after opening lower on the report. Prices for U.S. government debt were up, while the dollar fell against a basket of currencies.

The government’s first snapshot of first-quarter growth was released just hours before the Federal Reserve wraps up a two-day policy meeting.

With growth pinned down by temporary factors, Fed officials are likely to brush aside the slowdown and focus on other data that has suggested strength at the tail end of the quarter.

Separate reports on Wednesday showed private employers added 220,000 workers to their payrolls in March, while business activity in the Midwest hit a six-month high in April, with new orders surging and employment rising.

Still, the magnitude of the slowdown could complicate the U.S. central bank’s message as it sets to announce a further reduction in the amount of money it is pumping into the economy through monthly bond purchases.

NO FUNDAMENTAL WEAKNESS

“Our bet is that the weakness we saw in the first quarter is more transitory than fundamental, with a heavy dose of weather distortions,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial in Chicago.

Economists estimate severe weather could have chopped off as much as 1.4 percentage points from GDP growth. The government, however, gave no details on the impact of the weather.

Businesses restocked inventories to the tune of $111.7-billion in the final three months of last year, but added only $87.4-billion more to stocks in the first quarter, the smallest amount since the second quarter of 2013.

The slowdown in restocking subtracted 0.57 percentage point from GDP growth in the first quarter, but inventories should be a boost to second-quarter growth.

“It looks like most of the inventory correction will be contained in the first quarter,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

Trade lopped off 0.83 percentage point from growth, partly because of the weather, which left goods piling up at ports. Exports fell at a 7.6 per cent rate, the largest quarterly decline in five years, after growing at a 9.5 per cent pace in the final three months of 2013.

A measure of domestic demand that strips out exports and inventories expanded at a 1.5 per cent rate and there were virtually little signs of inflation pressures.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, increased at a 3.0 per cent rate, reflecting a spurt in spending on services linked to demand for heating and the Affordable Healthcare Act, which expanded healthcare coverage to many Americans.

Spending on services grew at its quickest pace since the second quarter of 2000, with healthcare contributing a solid 1.10 percentage points to GDP growth.

Spending on goods, however, slowed sharply, indicating that the frigid temperatures had reduced foot traffic to shopping malls. Consumer spending had increased at a brisk 3.3 per cent pace in the fourth-quarter.

Harsh weather also undercut business spending on equipment, which fell at its fastest pace in nearly five years. While investment in nonresidential structures, such as gas drilling, rebounded, the increase was minor.

Investment in home building contracted for a second straight quarter, another sign of the hit from the weather, although a rise in mortgage rates over the past year has also hurt.

A second quarter of contraction in spending on home building suggests a housing recession. A bounce back, however, is expected in the April-June period.

“The technical recession in housing is a major yellow flag in terms of the strength of the domestic economy. It will be while before the Fed starts raising interest rates,” said Brian Bethune, chief economist at Alpha Economic Foresights in Boston.

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