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Fri. 8:36 a.m.: US economy grew at solid 3.1 percent rate in first quarter

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. economy grew at a healthy 3.1 percent rate in the first three months of this year, but signs are mounting that growth has slowed sharply in the current quarter amid slower global growth and a confidence-shaking trade battle between the United States and China.

The gain in the gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic health, was unchanged from an estimate made a month ago, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. However, the components of growth shifted slightly with stronger business investment and consumer spending slowing more than previously estimated.

Economists believe growth has slowed sharply in the current April-June quarter to around 2 percent. They expect similar meager gains for the rest of the year, a forecast that runs counter to the Trump administration’s expectations for strong growth above 3 percent.

The 3.1 percent growth in the first quarter marked a rebound from a 2.2 percent growth rate in the fourth quarter of last year. But it was slower than a sizzling increase of 4.2 percent in the second quarter and a solid increase of 3.4 percent in the third quarter last year. For all of 2018, GDP grew 2.9 percent, the best annual gain since 2015.

Last year’s strength was powered by the implementation of a $1.5 trillion tax cut, President Donald Trump’s signature domestic achievement, and billions of dollars in increased government spending on the military and domestic programs Congress approved in early 2018.

However, the impact of the tax cuts and the higher government spending are expected to fade this year, leaving the economy growing very close to the 2.2 percent average seen over the 10 years of the current expansion, which will become the longest in U.S. history next month.

Economists at Capital Economics are forecasting that growth will slow to 2.3 percent this year and even further to 1.2 percent in 2020 before rebounding a bit to 2 percent growth in 2021.

Paul Ashworth, the firm’s chief U.S. economist, said that the slowdown from the fading of the tax cuts and increased government spending was being “exacerbated by a dramatic slowdown in other parts of the global economy,” in particular Europe and Japan. Trump’s “trade war with China is also sapping confidence,” Ashworth said.

The Trump administration disputes forecasts of a U.S. slowdown, believing that its economic policies will lift growth to levels of 3 percent or better over the next six years.

Trump, who is counting on a strong economy as he campaigns for re-election next year, has pushed the Federal Reserve to immediately start cutting interest rates to undo what he sees as the damage from four unnecessary Fed rate hikes last year.

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