Shrugging off the 1-2 punch of Hurricane Katrina and soaring energy prices, the U.S. economy grew at a surprisingly strong 3. 8 percent annual rate...

Share story

WASHINGTON — Shrugging off the 1-2 punch of Hurricane Katrina and soaring energy prices, the U.S. economy grew at a surprisingly strong 3.8 percent annual rate in the third quarter, the government reported Friday.

The improvement from a 3.3 percent clip in the previous quarter was propelled by a surge of consumer purchases, although that led to a negative savings rate. Sales of automobiles, generally offered at deep discounts for much of the period, led the way, the Commerce Department said.

Without Katrina’s devastating effect on the Gulf Coast, growth would have been a half to a whole percentage point higher, economists said. That would have put it comfortably over 4 percent, a level it has reached only three times in the past 20 such measurements going back to 2000.

Inflation also was subdued. The Commerce Department’s index of personal-consumption expenditures — an inflation measure favored by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan — rose at an annual rate of 3.7 percent. But without energy and food, the increase was only 1.3 percent, down from 1.7 percent in the second quarter.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

A separate Labor Department survey said employment costs grew by 0.8 percent in the July-to-September period, a combination of 0.6 percent wage growth and a 1.3 percent increase in health and other benefits. For the 12 months ended in September, employment costs rose by 3.1 percent, the lowest level since 1999.

That was good news for employers and suggested that recent increases in energy and food prices were not initiating a wage-price spiral.

“There is nothing here that looks remotely inflationary,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist with High Frequency Economics in Valhalla, N.Y.

Like almost all other economists, Shepherdson said the Fed — concerned that low unemployment might cause an abrupt increase in wages — would continue its policy of lifting its benchmark short-term interest rate by 0.25 percentage point at the two remaining meetings this year of its policymaking Federal Open Market Committee. The rate now stands at 3.75 percent, up from 1 percent in June 2004. The next meeting is Tuesday, followed by another Dec. 13.

But the modest wage and benefit increases aren’t good news for workers. Total compensation fell 1.5 percentage points short of keeping up with price increases over the past year, according to the Labor Department.

Jared Bernstein, an economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said the reports revealed “an important imbalance in the economic expansion.” The economy was continuing to produce more goods and services, he said, but, “This growth is failing to show up in hourly earnings.” That, he said, “will make it harder for working families to truly get ahead.”

Personal savings provided another troublesome note. The savings rate, barely above zero in the spring, plunged to minus 1.1 percent in the three summer months, meaning that people consumed more than they earned. It was the first three-month period of negative savings since the Commerce Department began measuring the savings rate in 1947.

Of more immediate concern is how well-situated the economy is for further growth in the final quarter of 2005. Most economists said the evidence on the whole pointed to slower growth than the summer months’ 3.8 percent — but faster growth than they had expected before Friday’s reports. Economists had expected only 3.6 percent growth.

A bullish indicator was a substantial decline in private inventories, suggesting that manufacturers would have to step up production to restock shelves.

On the other side were the negative savings rate, which is unsustainable in the long run, and the summer’s run of automobile sales, which has ended.