Incomes, though, jumped last quarter as companies paid out special dividends and bonuses ahead of expected tax increases in 2013. Commerce estimated that businesses paid nearly $40 billion in early dividends. After-tax income, adjusted for inflation, rose 6.8 percent, the most in nearly four years.
Superstorm Sandy likely also dragged on growth by closing factories, disrupting shipping and shutting down retail stores. While the department did not specify Sandy's effect on GDP, it estimated that Sandy destroyed about $36 billion in private property and $8.6 billion in government property.
Subpar economic growth has held back hiring. The economy has added about 150,000 jobs a month, on average, for the past two years. That's barely enough to reduce the unemployment rate, which has been a still-high 7.8 percent for two months.
Economists forecast that unemployment stayed at that rate in January. The government will release the January jobs report Friday.
The slower growth in stockpiles followed a jump in the third quarter. Slower inventory growth means factories likely produced less. Heavy equipment maker Caterpillar Inc. said this week, for example, that it reduced its inventories in the fourth quarter as global sales declined from a year earlier.
Still, with consumer spending rising, companies might have to rebuild inventories in the current January-March quarter, economists say. That could boost growth.
Wednesday's report is the first of three estimates of GDP the government issues each quarter. GDP measures the nation's total output of goods and services - from restaurant meals and haircuts to airplanes and appliances. The estimates of GDP are revised by an average of 1.3 percentage points between the first and third estimate. That means the final figure for the fourth quarter might end up showing either growth or a steeper contraction.