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The U.S. economy could have best growth in 2 years

There's a chance the sluggish U.S. economy actually grew at a 3 percent pace or better in the third quarter — the best rate in two years.

Friday's third-quarter GDP report could be the first in eight quarters where growth has topped 2.6 percent. The last time was the third quarter of 2014, when it came in at 5 percent.

According to the CNBC/Moody's Analytics Rapid Update, economists now see third-quarter GDP growth tracking at a median rate of 3 percent.

Their actual forecasts are slightly lower at 2.9 percent.

Economists raised their tracking forecasts by an average 0.4 percentage point after Wednesday's advance goods deficit and inventories data and new home sales.

The jump in forecasts goes against a trend where growth outlooks have been consistently pared back and 3 percent growth has remained frustratingly elusive. In September, the Rapid Update had been tracking at a 3 percent pace for Q3 but fell after a slew of weaker-than-expected data.

Goldman Sachs economists Wednesday said they raised their tracking forecast by 0.2 to 2.9 percent. They said the advanced goods trade balance showed a deficit of $56.1 billion, about $4.4 billion lower than expected. They noted total exports rose 0.8 percent, with strong consumer goods, up 4.4 percent and capital goods exports, up 3.7 percent.

The Goldman economists said Thursday's durable goods report could also impact their tracking of GDP, which will be reported Friday morning.

Since the third quarter of 2015, growth has not exceeded 2 percent and has been particularly weak in the last three quarters, coming in under 1 percent twice.

Barclays economists raised their tracking estimate to 3 percent, but said the data contained some downside risks for their outlook. Consumer goods imports fell early in the year and dropped a further 1.8 percent in September, the economists noted. They also saw downside risk to their expectations of a rebound in business investment.

"We continue to expect strong household consumption, and the recent improvement in autos imports supports that view, but weak consumer goods imports is a downside risk to the outlook, as the U.S. sources the majority of its consumer goods overseas. On investment, the sharp decline in capital goods in September (-3.6% m/m) as well as the consistently negative y/y readings over the past year ... indicate tepid demand for machinery and other business equipment," the Barclays economists wrote.

U.S. GDP growth rates from Q3, 2014

2014 - Q3 5.0

2014 - Q4 2.3

2015 - Q1 2.0

2015 - Q2 2.6

2015 - Q3 2.0

2015 - Q4 0.9

2016 - Q1 0.8

2016 - Q2 1.4

Source: Haver