WASHINGTON — A recent batch of government and business reports shows a U.S. economy emerging from winter's deep freeze.
Economists had expected the growth to accelerate in 2014 after two years of slow and steady improvement. But an unusually bitter winter sent factories, hiring and consumer spending into hibernation.
Now, as temperatures rise, the economy is regaining momentum. Factories are busier. Consumers are spending more. Banks are making more loans to businesses. Companies have bigger plans to invest in plants and equipment.
"The weather really played havoc. There were ice storms in Georgia. That is not something you see every day," said Michael Dolega, senior economist at TD Economics. "Now, as Americans have dug themselves out and everything has melted, you're going to get a bounceback."
An index based on several leading economic indicators — including employment, consumer confidence, stocks and interest rates — shot up for the third straight month in March. The Conference Board, a business research association, said Monday that its index's 0.8 percent gain to 100.9 "suggests accelerated growth for the remainder of the spring and the summer," said Ken Goldstein, a Conference Board economist.
Many economists expect the economy to grow at an annual rate of 3 percent or more from April through June, up from an estimated 1.3 percent the first three months of the year. Helping to drive the growth have been recent increases in manufacturing after tumbling in January. Factory production climbed 0.5 percent in March, after a 1.4 percent surge the previous month, the Federal Reserve reported last week. This suggests that manufacturers anticipate that demand from businesses and consumers will increase.
Weekly government reports on unemployment benefits show that most employers are prepping for stronger growth in the months ahead. Claims for jobless benefits are a proxy for layoffs. The four-week average for unemployment claims have plunged to a 61/2-year low, according to the Labor Department.
The number of claims is consistent with job gains of "200,000-plus" this month, said Sal Guatieri, senior economist at BMO Capital Markets.