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Economy Shows Surprising Bounce

Wall Street Journal (03/23/13) Brenda Cronin

U.S. businesses and consumers have shown surprising strength in recent weeks, despite concerns about the impact of higher taxes, a flare-up of trouble in Europe, and the budget cuts that took hold this month. Gauges of employment, retail sales and manufacturing all have notched solid gains, prompting many economists to ratchet up estimates for first-quarter growth. In a Wall Street Journal survey last week, economists raised their estimate of gross domestic product for the first quarter to an average annual rate of 2.2%, up from a 1.7% estimate in January.

What is unclear is whether the momentum can be sustained in an environment where there is deep mistrust of lawmakers’ ability to clear obstacles to growth. Some of the factors that threatened consumers at the start of the year are expected to recede in the second quarter. Gas prices climbed almost 50 cents in January and February and have been falling in March. Consumers are adjusting to the bite from higher payroll taxes. Tax refunds, some delayed by wrangling over the fiscal cliff, failed to mute February’s retail sales and could help lift March’s numbers. Meanwhile, confidence has been buoyed by rising home values, the bull market in stocks, and easier access to credit.