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Economy ended '03 at 4.1 percent growth rate

GDP expected to have better pace in the 1st quarter

WASHINGTON -- America's economic recovery ended 2003 on a good note, growing at a solid 4.1 percent annual rate, and is expected to do even better in the opening quarter of this year.

The latest reading on gross domestic product for the October-to-December quarter was the same as a previous estimate made a month ago, the Commerce Department reported yesterday. That was consistent with economists' forecasts.

GDP measures the value of all goods and services produced within the United States and is considered the most important barometer of the economy's health.

Economic growth in the current January-to-March quarter is expected to clock in at a rate of 4.5 percent, according to some analysts' forecasts.

Growth in the April-to-June quarter also should be around that pace, they said.

Tax refunds and other tax incentives should motivate consumers and businesses to spend and invest more -- energizing the economy in the first half of this year, economists said.

''I think we should have another couple of good quarters," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com, an analysis firm. ''The only thing we can be hoping for now is some job growth."

On Wall Street, the GDP report helped propel stocks upward. The Dow Jones industrials gained 170.59 points to close at 10,218.82.

It's the second half of the year, though, that some economists are a bit concerned about. If the lackluster job climate persists, some worry that consumers might turn cautious, thus raising the risk of an economic slowdown in the final two quarters of this year.

The economy added 21,000 jobs in February -- all of them in government -- a Labor Department survey of payrolls showed. Job growth has been painfully slow despite better economic activity. Since President Bush took office in January 2001, the economy has lost 2.2 million jobs.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry has pointed to this as evidence that Bush's economic policies aren't working. Bush, who has defended his policies, wants Congress to make his tax cuts permanent, contending it would make the economy stronger and spur job growth.

In other economic news, new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week by a seasonally adjusted 1,000 to 339,000, the Labor Department said. And the National Association of Realtors reported sales of previously owned homes grew by 2 percent in February to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.12 million.

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