The fresh round of federal spending cuts scheduled to begin next week would slow economic growth in the next year, though not nearly as much as going over the so-called fiscal cliff might have, economists said.
The cuts — a result of a policy known as sequestration — most likely would reduce growth by about one-half of a percentage point in 2013, according to a range of government and private forecasters.
That could be enough to again slow the arrival of a recovery, producing instead another year of sluggish growth and high unemployment.
Such economic forecasts are even cloudier than normal because of uncertainty about the cumulative impact of the rounds of federal spending cuts and tax increases in the last few years. Whether the government's repeated flirtation with fiscal turmoil is causing businesses to postpone or reduce planned investment is also unclear.
Some evidence suggests that companies, particularly in the military industry, cut investment last year in anticipation of sequestration, which was originally scheduled to begin Jan. 1.
The Commerce Department estimated that the economy shrank slightly in the fourth quarter.
Consumer spending remained relatively strong last year, but may have weakened early this year after an increase in payroll taxes, part of a deal to avoid the worst of the fiscal cliff tax increases and to delay its spending cuts.
"Where are all the customers? And where's their money?" a Wal-Mart executive wrote in a February e-mail obtained by Bloomberg News, bemoaning a sharp decline in sales. Wal-Mart sales accounted for more than 2 percent of domestic economic activity in recent years.