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US economy sees bigger drop of 6.1% in Q1 on heavy cuts

THE United States economy shrank at a worse-than-expected 6.1-percent pace at the start of this year as sharp cutbacks by businesses and the biggest drop in US exports in 40 years overwhelmed a rebound in consumer spending.

The Commerce Department's report, released yesterday, dashed hopes that the recession's grip on the country loosened in the first quarter. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected a 5-percent annualized decline.

Instead, the economy ended up performing nearly as bad as it had in the final three months of last year when it logged the worst slide in a quarter century, contracting at a 6.3-percent pace. Nervous consumers played a prominent role in that dismal showing as they held back spending in the face of rising unemployment, falling home values and shrinking nest eggs.

In the January-March quarter consumers came back to life, boosting their spending after two straight quarters of reductions. The 2.2-percent growth rate was the strongest in two years.

Still, the consumer rebound was swamped by heavy spending cuts in virtually every other area.

Businesses cut spending on home building, commercial construction, equipment and software, and inventories of goods. Sales of US goods to foreign buyers plunged as they retrenched in the face of economic troubles in their own countries. Even the government trimmed spending. It was the first time that happened since the end of 2005.

The sharp cuts underscore the toll the housing, credit and financial crises - the worst since the 1930s - are having on the country. The recession, which began in December 2007, has taken a big bite out of national economic activity and snatched 5.1 million jobs.

To cushion the impact of the downturn, the Federal Reserve has slashed a key bank lending rate to a record low near zero and rolled out a string of radical programs to spur lending.

President Barack Obama is counting on his US$787-billion stimulus of tax cuts and increased government spending on big public works projects to help bolster economic activity later this year. The administration also has put forward programs to rescue commercial banks and rein in home foreclosures - major negative forces weighing on the economy.

Even in the face of yesterday's weaker-than-expected report, some analysts stuck to predictions that the economy would shrink less in the current quarter.


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