Washington The economic recovery is now consistently picking up speed, and American consumers are the ones pushing the gas pedal. They increased their spending late last year at the fastest pace since 2006.
The question now is whether they can spend enough this year to make the economy grow even faster and finally bring down unemployment. It’s up to them because the housing market and government spending aren’t offering much help.
A more active consumer was the main reason the economy grew at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the final three months of 2010, the Commerce Department said Friday. It was up from 2.6 percent the previous quarter and the best since the start of last year.
That level of growth would be great news in a healthy economy that only needed to hold steady. But with unemployment still at 9.4 percent a year and a half after the Great Recession, steady is not good enough. By some estimates, the economy would need to grow 5 percent for a whole year to significantly bring down the unemployment rate.
Still, the recovery has gained steam since a difficult patch last spring. Economists now think 2011 will be a pivotal year when consumers can finally be counted on to power the economy to stronger growth.
A one-year cut of 2 percentage points in the Social Security payroll tax is a big reason why economists predict Americans will keep spending enough that the economy will grow more strongly this year.
“Consumers are the most powerful cylinder the economy has, and finally it is firing,” said economist Sung Won Sohn at California State University. “Consumers will be picking up the slack this year as the government stimulus fades.”