The United States economy surged in the third quarter as a strong job market and falling inflation gave consumers the confidence to spend freely on goods and services.
Gross domestic product, the primary measure of economic output, grew at a 4.9 percent annualized rate from July through September, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. It was the strongest showing since late 2021, defying predictions of a slowdown prompted by the Federal Reserve’s interest rate increases.
The acceleration was made possible in part by slowing inflation, which lifted purchasing power even as wage growth weakened, and a job market that has shown renewed vigor over the past three months.
It’s a far cry from the recession that many had forecast at this time last year, before economists realized that Americans had piled up enough savings to power spending as the Fed moved to make borrowing more expensive.
“There’s been an enormous increase in wealth since Covid,” said Yelena Shulyatyeva, senior economist for the bank BNP Paribas, referring to recent Fed data that showed median net worth climbed 37 percent from 2019 to 2022. “People still take not just one vacation, not just two, but three and four.”
That level of spending in turn fueled robust job growth in service industries like hotels and restaurants even as sectors that benefited from pandemic shopping trends, like transportation and warehousing, returned to more normal levels. And with layoffs still near record lows, workers have little reason to hold off on making purchases, even if it means using a credit card — an increasingly pricey option as interest rates drift higher.
One beneficiary of those open pocketbooks is Amanda McClements, who owns a home goods store in Washington, D.C., called Salt & Sundry. Sales are up about 15 percent from last year and have finally eclipsed 2019 levels.
“People can’t get enough candles; that continues to be our top seller,” Ms. McClements said. They are also “entertaining more post-pandemic, so we do really well in glassware, tableware, beautiful linens.”
Ms. McClements said business hadn’t been uniformly strong, though: Her plant store, Little Leaf, never snapped back from the depths of the pandemic, and it closed this year. “We’ve been experiencing a really uneven recovery,” she said.
Although consumers propelled the bulk of the economy’s growth in the third quarter, other factors contributed as well. Residential investment, for example, provided a boost even in the face of higher interest rates: Those who already own homes have little incentive to sell, so newly constructed homes are the only ones on the market.
“The third quarter would be that sweet spot where higher mortgage rates kept people in place, builders capitalized on the lack of existing supply, and that showed up as an improvement from prior quarters,” said Bernard Yaros, lead U.S. economist at Oxford Economics.
The rebound in growth will probably be brief. Pitfalls loom in the fourth quarter, including the depletion of savings, the resumption of mandatory student loan payments and the need to refinance maturing corporate debt at higher rates.
But for now, the United States is outperforming other large economies, in part because of its aggressive fiscal response to the pandemic and in part because it has been more insulated from impact of the Ukraine war on energy prices.
“We’re talking about the eurozone and U.K. certainly looking like being on the cusp of recession, if not already in recession,” said Andrew Hunter, deputy U.S. economist for Capital Economics, an analysis firm. “The U.S. is still the global outlier.”
Jeanna Smialek contributed reporting.