WASHINGTON - The U.S. economy unexpectedly shrank from October through December, the first quarterly drop since 2009 and a reminder of the economy's vulnerability as automatic cuts in government spending loom.
The Commerce Department said the economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.1 percent mainly because companies restocked at a slower rate and the government slashed defense spending. Those trends partly reflected uncertainty late last year about the fiscal cliff, which Congress averted in a deal reached Jan. 1.
Economists say those factors could prove temporary, and the likelihood of another recession appears remote. Still, the sharp slowdown from the 3.1 percent annual growth rate in the July-September quarter, also driven by a drop in U.S. exports, raised concerns about 2013.
Government spending cuts and slower company restocking, which can fluctuate sharply, subtracted a combined 2.6 percentage points from GDP. Those two factors offset a 2.2 percent increase in consumer spending. And business spending on equipment and software rose after shrinking over the summer.
"Frankly, this is the best-looking contraction in U.S. GDP you'll ever see," Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said in a research note. "The drag from defense spending and inventories is a one-off. The rest of the report is all encouraging."
The plunge in defense spending in the October-December quarter followed a jump in the third quarter. The fluctuation might have reflected higher-than-usual spending that occurred in the July-September period in anticipation of government spending cuts later in the year. Some defense contractors reported lower government spending at the end of the year.
Last week, General Dynamics blamed a $2 billion loss in the fourth quarter on "slowed defense spending."
Exports fell by the most in nearly four years, a result of Europe's recession and slower growth in China and some other large developing countries.