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U.S. GDP reading unchanged but consumer spending less robust

A Toys "R" Us shopping bag is seen inside their Times Square store in New York.

SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS

The U.S. economy slowed as expected in the first quarter, but a less robust pace of consumer spending and export growth than previously estimated could dampen the economic outlook for the current period.

Gross domestic product increased at a 1.9-per-cent annual rate, the Commerce Department said in its final reading on Thursday, unchanged from its estimate last month. That was in line with economists' expectations.

However, when measured from the income side, the economy grew at a 3.1-per-cent pace in the first quarter, up from 2.6 per cent in the previous quarter.

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The tepid first-quarter pace of GDP growth was a step-down from the October-December period's 3-per-cent rate.

It also reflected a slightly less sturdy accumulation of inventories by businesses and slower pace of investment in equipment and software than previously estimated.

Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 per cent of U.S. economic activity, increased at a 2.5-per-cent rate in first quarter, rather than the previously reported 2.7-per-cent pace.

There are signs that consumer spending slowed in the second quarter, with retail sales falling in April and May.

Business inventories increased $54.4-billion (U.S.), instead of $57.7-billion, adding only 0.10 percentage point to GDP growth compared with 0.21 percentage point in the previous estimate.

Excluding inventories, the economy grew at a revised 1.8-per-cent rate in the first quarter, rather than 1.7 per cent and up from 1.1 per cent in the fourth quarter.

Exports grew at a 4.2-per-cent rate instead of 7.2 per cent.

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While the careful of management of inventories could be a boost to second-quarter growth, the mild downward revision to consumer spending underscores the loss of momentum in the economy that has been evident in weak hiring and slowing factory activity.

Second-quarter growth is forecast around 2 per cent, but with global demand cooling amid Europe's debt woes and an uncertain fiscal policy path at home forcing households to be cautious, even that estimate might be too optimistic.

Business spending on equipment and software was revised down to show a 3.5-per-cent growth rate instead of the previously reported 3.9 per cent. Anecdotal evidence suggests the pace softened in the second quarter.

The drag from the revisions to consumer spending, equipment and software, exports and inventory accumulation was offset by upward revisions to investment in residential and nonresidential structures.

Import growth was lowered by 3.4 percentage points to a 2.7 per-cent-rate. While that supported growth during the quarter, it was a sign of weakening domestic demand.

Government spending fell at a 4-per-cent rate, instead of the previously reported 3.9 per cent.

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The department also revised after-tax corporate profits to a 5.7-per- cent rate of decline instead of 4.1 per cent.

That was still the biggest decline since the fourth quarter of 2008 and reflected the end of a special tax bonus that allowed U.S. companies to accelerate the depreciation of assets.

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