Fed survey shows economy ended 2011 with strength

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WASHINGTON — The final weeks of 2011 were among the economy’s strongest as Americans shopped and traveled more, ending the year with a shot of optimism for 2012.

That’s the bright picture the Federal Reserve sketched in a survey released Wednesday. It said all but one of its 12 banking districts experienced some growth from late November through the end of the year.

Some sectors of the economy, notably housing, remain weak, the Fed said. But consumers spent more freely. Factories made more goods. Americans stepped up travel. And the auto industry enjoyed its best stretch of the year.

Economists noted greater confidence in the tone of the report. For example, the central bank described auto manufacturing as “vibrant” in several districts. Consumer spending was deemed “robust” in the Dallas region.

“It has been quite a while since we have seen the Fed use words like vibrant and robust to describe any part of the economy,” said Brian Bethune, an economics professor at Amherst College. “I think one of the things driving the stronger language is that things are better than the Fed had been expecting.”

The report comes just six months after the economy nearly stalled under the weight of high food and gas prices and supply disruptions from Japan that slowed U.S. manufacturing.

The economy and the job market have both improved since then. And December may end up being the strongest month of 2011. Employers added 200,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent – the lowest rate in nearly three years.

Most economists predict the economy grew at an annual rate of 3 percent in the final three months of last year. That would be an improvement from the summer, when the economy expanded just 1.8 percent, and much better than the 0.9 percent annual growth rate in the first half of 2011.

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