Tim Mullaney, USA TODAY
The U.S. economy posted a decline of 0.1% at an annual rate last quarter, shocking experts although there was an expectation that growth would be lower than the 3.1% gain in the third quarter.
The government's first estimate of gross domestic product missed the consensus forecast of 1% growth in a survey of economists by Bloomberg.
Several prominent economists said this week that the number might come in above forecasts, after the government reported better-than-expected durable goods orders for December.
The economy grew 3.1% in the third quarter, 1.3% in the second and 2.0% in the first.
Growth has averaged less than 2.5% since the recession ended in mid-2009. That's below what many economists say is needed to create jobs and bring down unemployment quickly.
The government will make its January jobs report on Friday. Economists forecast the unemployment rate remained at 7.8%, unchanged from the previous two months.
The economy's prospects this quarter may hinge on how consumer spending is affected by this month's expiration of the Social Security payroll tax cut, which will reduce many Americans' take-home pay by about 2%.
A possible cautionary signal: Consumer confidence plunged in January for the third straight month, erasing all of 2012's gains, the Conference Board reported Tuesday.
Some economists are more optimistic about the full year's outlook, especially in the second half. The National Association of Business Economics said Monday that half the economists in its latest quarterly survey expect the economy to grow between 2% and 4% in 2013. Only 36% predicted that range of growth in the group's October survey.
Revised estimates for fourth-quarter GDP will be released by the Commerce Department on Feb. 28 and March 28.