GDP

This winter, bitter cold and heavier-than-normal snowfall swept across much of the nation, chilling economic activity. Above, New York residents endure harsh weather last February. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times / May 29, 2014)

The economy stumbled badly during the severe winter, much more than first estimated, according to a government report, and stalled a recovery that appeared poised to take off this year.

Economists, however, see the quarterly drop more as a delay in the nation's long revival from the Great Recession. Other recent data indicate economic growth has picked up significantly this spring, putting the recovery back on a slowly improving track.

Total economic output shrank at an annual rate of 1% from January through March, the first quarterly contraction in three years and just the second since the recession ended nearly five years ago, the Commerce Department said Thursday.

The department's revised figure for what is known as gross domestic product was far worse than the 0.1% growth initially reported last month. And the revision was steeper than the 0.5% contraction economists had anticipated.

The new reading also makes it unlikely that the economy will expand this year at the 3% rate economists previously projected.

"We've got to climb out of that hole" in the first quarter, said Brian Bethune, chief economist at consulting firm Alpha Economic Foresights. "You can think of it as a temporary setback, but it is going to pull down growth projections for this year."

Investors shrugged off the report. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 65.56 points, or 0.4%, to 16,698.74.

It typically takes two straight quarters of contraction to signal a recession, and projections are for growth to return in the second quarter.

The economy expanded at a 2.6% annual rate in the fourth quarter last year. And heading into this year, the recovery appeared ready to reach what economists call takeoff velocity, which has been an elusive pace in the recovery.

"If the economy can demonstrate it can grow better than 3% on a sustained basis, it will motivate many more companies to accelerate business capital spending and also increase the pace of hiring," said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at the Economic Outlook Group.

This winter, bitter cold and heavier-than-normal snowfall swept across much of the nation, chilling economic activity.

The big factor in the contraction was a larger decline than originally estimated in how much businesses spent to restock their shelves.

Companies increased their stockpiles of goods by just $49 billion in the first quarter, down sharply from $111.7 billion in the fourth quarter. The falloff shaved first-quarter economic growth by 1.62 percentage points.

The weather didn't slow down consumers much. Their spending was revised up slightly to 3.1% Thursday, though still down from 3.3% in the fourth quarter. Even so, spending was strong, which bodes well for the rest of the year.

But it wasn't enough to boost first-quarter growth.

"Companies were not able to generate more inventory to offset that consumption because trucks were stuck on the road and employees couldn't get back to the factories," Baumohl said.

Still, what he called the "historically harsh winter" didn't alter the improving fundamentals of the recovery.

Baumohl forecast growth of 3.5% to 4% in the second quarter as businesses rebuild inventories. And he projects 3% growth in the second half of the year.

Alan MacEachin, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union, also is expecting a "decent snapback" in growth this quarter. He's forecasting 3.7% annualized growth, with the economy then "back on track for 3% going forward."

Economists point to improving economic data in recent weeks to bolster their view that the first quarter was a weather-related anomaly.