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U.S. economy shrank 3.5 percent in 2020 after growing 4 percent last quarter

WASHINGTON (AP) — Stuck in the grip of a viral pandemic, the U.S. economy grew at a 4 percent annual rate in the final three months of 2020 and shrank last year by the largest amount in 74 years.

For 2020 as a whole, a year when the coronavirus inflicted the worst economic freeze since the end of World War II, the economy contracted 3.5 percent and clouded the outlook for the coming year. The economic damage followed the eruption of the pandemic 10 months ago and the deep recession it triggered, with tens of millions of Americans left jobless.

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Thursday’s report from the Commerce Department estimated that the nation’s gross domestic product — its total output of goods and services — slowed sharply in the October-December quarter from a record 33.4 percent surge in the July-September quarter. That gain had followed a record-shattering annual plunge of 33.4 percent in the April-June quarter, when the economy sank into a free-fall.

The pandemic’s blow to the economy early last spring ended the longest U.S. economic expansion on record — nearly 11 years. The damage from the virus caused GDP to contract at a 5 percent annual rate in last year’s January-March quarter. Since then, thousands of businesses have closed, nearly 10 million people remain out of work and more than 400,000 Americans have died from the virus.

The estimated drop in GDP for 2020 was the first such decline since a 2.5 percent fall in 2009, during the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis. That was the deepest annual setback since the economy shrank 11.6 percent in 1946, when the economy was demobilizing after World War II. The most catastrophic annual contraction in records dating to 1930 was a 12.9 percent fall in 1932 during the Great Depression.

The government’s report Thursday was its first of three estimates of growth last quarter; the figure will be revised twice in the coming weeks.

The outlook for the 2021 economy remains hazy. Economists warn that a sustained recovery won’t likely take hold until vaccines are distributed and administered nationwide and government-enacted rescue aid spreads through the economy — a process likely to take months.

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