On Thursday, the European Central Bank raised its estimate for growth next year by just 0.1 percentage point to a still-anemic 1.1 percent; the central bank expects the euro zone — the 17 European nations that use the euro — to show a contraction of 0.4 percentage point once all the data for 2013 is in.
"All in all, we're seeing positive developments," Mario Draghi, the president of the central bank, said at a news conference, after the bank left its main interest rate unchanged at 0.25 percent.
The situation in Europe makes the United States look good by comparison, even if things are not as rosy as the latest figures from Washington might suggest.
"You can never be unhappy with a 3.6 percent number for gross domestic product," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. "But the details are more sobering than the headlines. Apart from the inventory numbers, the revisions are pretty trivial."
"Either companies thought demand would accelerate and built inventories in anticipation of sales that didn't happen," Mr. Shepherdson added, "or they're building in anticipation of stronger demand in the fourth quarter." With demand uncertain in the final three months of the year, Mr. Shepherdson expects fourth-quarter growth will probably run at a pace of 1 to 2 percent.
The economy's performance in the final months of 2013 will also determine the denouement of one of the longest-running dramas on Wall Street — the timing of when the Federal Reserve begins easing its stimulus efforts. Investors and traders had expected policy makers to begin tapering its monthly $85 billion bond purchases in September, but the central bank held off because of mixed economic data.
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Although the latest data on growth in gross domestic product comes after a series of better-than-expected figures in the United States, American central bankers don't appear to be in a rush to pull back on the stimulus. While they could act as soon as the next Fed meeting later this month, many analysts do not expect a move until early 2014.
On Thursday, the president of one regional Fed bank indicated that he remained cautious. "The strong third quarter doesn't make a trend," said Dennis P. Lockhart, president of the Atlanta Fed. "I am not prepared to interpret the revised third-quarter number as an indication that the economy is on a much stronger track — I think we're still on that relatively moderate growth track."
The spotlight on the Fed will grow more intense after Friday, when the Labor Department reports the latest figures for job creation and the unemployment rate in November. Although many economists say that the job market will remain cloudy because of the aftereffect of October's government shutdown, the report will be closely watched because it will provide the last major clue to the economy before Fed policy makers gather on Dec. 17 and 18.
"It's a big number," said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial. "I think they won't taper in December, but it is close."