WASHINGTON - The prospects for a quick economic recovery dimmed yesterday, with new data showing the economy grew at a slower-than-expected rate this spring despite some oomph from tax rebate checks - and actually shrank late last year.
Democrats called for a second economic stimulus package, while the Bush administration said the growth was proof the checks helped.
Armed with government stimulus checks of up to $600 per person, Americans boosted spending on food, clothing, and other items in the second quarter, the Commerce Department reported.
But the gross domestic product still increased at a 1.9 percent annual rate, up from 0.9 percent in the first quarter but less than the 2.4 percent economists were looking for.
Government revisions showed the economy actually shrank at the end of last year at a 0.2 percent annual rate. It was the first quarterly dip for the GDP since the 2001 recession.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department said the number of newly laid-off people rose to 448,000 last week, the most in five years. More job cuts are expected in coming months, and Americans may cut back on spending, kindling recession fears.
Wall Street didn't like what it saw. Following two days of gains, the Dow Jones industrials fell 205.67 points to 11,378.02.
President Bush acknowledged the economic news was "not as good as we'd like it to be." His commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez, said the growth showed the stimulus package was providing some relief.
"Some said the rebates would not have an impact. Well, they were wrong," Gutierrez said. "The stimulus checks are having an impact in spite of the energy prices."
Sales of US exports grew at a 9.2 percent pace in the second quarter, up from 5.1 percent in the first quarter. The weak dollar has made US goods cheaper to foreign buyers.
Consumer spending for the second quarter rose at a 1.5 percent rate, better than the first quarter and the best showing since the third quarter of last year, when the economy was still chugging along despite the housing slump.
Slower growth or no, many Americans were grateful for the help as the checks rolled in.
"It was much needed," said Les Jewell, a 32-year-old technology teacher in St. Louis who has a 7-month-old son. "It was very useful."
Economists have mixed views on what's to come. A lot hinges on the whims of people who put their rebate checks in the bank: Will they spend them, boosting growth, or keep them stashed away?
There was some evidence Americans saved at least some of the cash. The savings rate rose to 2.6 percent of disposable income, a six-year high.
A growing number of analysts fear that the economy will slip into reverse again at the end of this year, as any effects of the tax rebates disappear.