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WASHINGTON — The economy gained strength at the end of last year as Americans spent at the fastest pace in four years and U.S. companies sold more overseas.
The growth is boosting hopes for a stronger 2011. But it remains too weak to ease high unemployment.
The Commerce Department reported Friday that growth rose by an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the October-December quarter. That’s better than the 2.6 percent growth in the previous quarter. And it was the best quarterly showing since the start of last year.
The economy has now consistently picked up speed since hitting a rough path in the spring.
For all of last year, the economy grew 2.9 percent, the most since 2005. It was an improvement from 2009 when the economy suffered its worst decline in more than 60 years.
All told, the economy produced $13.38 trillion worth of goods and services last year, a new record. It surpassed the pre-recession peak reached in the fourth quarter of 2007.
Still, the economy isn’t growing fast enough to drive down unemployment, which was 9.4 percent in December. It takes about 3 percent growth just to create enough jobs to keep pace with the population increase. By some estimates, growth would have to be closer to 5 percent for a full year to drive down the unemployment rate by 1 percentage point.
Increased consumer spending was a key reason the economy grew more strongly. Americans boosted their spending at a 4.4 percent pace, the most since 2006. They spent more on furnishings, appliances, cars and clothes.
That’s largely why economists are more optimistic about the economy’s performance this year.