Economy grinds to halt as consumers pull back

@CNNMoney July 29, 2011: 12:02 PM ET
GDP grows only 1.3% in second quarter of 2011

After picking up in 2010, economic growth slowed in the first six months of 2011, the government reported Friday.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Consumers all but shut their wallets in the second quarter, causing the U.S. economy to grow at a tepid pace.

To make matters worse, growth in the first quarter was much slower than initially thought, according to new government figures released Friday.

"It's quite worrisome as the economy remains at stall speed in the second quarter," said Sal Guatieri, senior economist with BMO Capital Markets. "If that continues, then it would raise the risks of a double dip."

Gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the nation's economic health, rose at an annual rate of 1.3% in the second quarter, the Commerce Department said.

While that's an increase from the revised 0.4% growth rate in the first three months of the year, it is hardly good news. The government originally reported that the economy grew at a 1.9% annualized rate in the first quarter.

The growth in the second quarter was also below the 1.8% increase expected by economists surveyed by CNNMoney.

Dubbed a "soft patch" by economists and even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, the economy's sluggishness was due to a variety of factors that weighed on consumers and businesses.

Higher gas prices for one, hit Americans hard when they peaked at a national average of $3.98 a gallon in May.

Top 10 consumer complaints

Overall, consumer spending, which accounts for roughly 70% of gross domestic product, picked up only 0.1% in the second quarter -- marking a significant slowdown from growth of 2.1% in the first three months of the year.

"The major disappointment in the report was the weakness in consumer spending, and it wasn't just fewer automobiles being sold due to Japan's earthquake. There was broad-based softness in consumer spending." Guatieri said.

It marked the slowest growth in consumer spending since the fourth quarter of 2009.

Looking back further, it also now appears that American consumers had less disposable income than originally thought from 2007 through 2010, whereas corporate profits were revised significantly higher for 2009 and 2010.

The government revised the GDP data back to 2003 and also found the recession was worse than originally thought.

Overall, the theme of the U.S. recovery continues to be one driven by companies holding cash on the sidelines and building up their infrastructure, rather than a recovery driven by consumers.

Americans on Main Street continue to be held back by slow job growth and the housing slump, even as major companies report strong profits and have mostly solid balance sheets.

Where the jobs are

According to the latest GDP report, investment in commercial real estate surged 8.1% in the second quarter, and business spending on equipment and software rose 5.7%.

Meanwhile, exports rose 6%. The U.S. continues to import far more goods and services than it exports to foreign countries, but because imports grew at a slower rate of 1.3%, that also contributed positively to GDP.

The aftermath of Japan's earthquake and tsunami may have been one of the major reasons import growth slowed, as the U.S. bought fewer auto parts from the country.

Friday's GDP report also sparked cries from economists for lawmakers to act quickly in raising the debt ceiling and agree to a deal to cut the national deficit over the long term.

"We don't expect a recession, but if policymakers drag their feet -- which they are doing -- it will be a little more likely," said Paul Dales, senior U.S. Economist for Capital Economics.

Guatieri said: "If the government does not raise the debt ceiling and is forced to cut back spending and Social Security checks, that could undermine consumer spending even further."

-- CNN's Katy Byron contributed to this report To top of page

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