WASHINGTON — The economy grew at a 3.5 percent pace in the third quarter, the best showing in two years, fueled by government-supported spending on cars and homes.
The Commerce Department’s report Thursday delivered the strongest signal yet that the economy entered a new, though fragile, phase of recovery and that the worst recession since the 1930s has ended.
The much-awaited turnaround ended the streak of four straight quarters of contracting economic activity, the first time that’s happened on records dating to 1947.
It also marked the first increase since the spring of 2008, when the economy experienced a short-lived uptick in growth.
The third-quarter’s performance — the strongest since right before the country fell into recession in December 2007 — was slightly better than the 3.3 percent growth rate economists expected.
Armed with cash from government support programs, consumers led the rebound in the third quarter, snapping up cars and homes.
Consumer spending on big-ticket manufactured goods soared at an annualized rate of 22.3 percent in the third quarter, the most since the end of 2001. The jump largely reflected car purchases spurred by the government’s Cash for Clunkers program that offered a rebate of up to $4,500 to buy new cars and trade in old gas guzzlers.
The housing market also turned a corner in the summer. Spending on housing projects jumped at an annualized pace of 23.4 percent, the largest jump since 1986. It was the first time since the end of 2005 that spending on housing was positive.
The government’s $8,000 tax credit for first-time home buyers supported the housing rebound. Congress is considering extending the credit, which expires on Nov. 30.
The collapse of the housing market led the country into the recession. Rotten mortgage securities spiraled into a banking crisis. Home foreclosures surged. The sector’s return to good health is a crucial ingredient to a sustained economic recovery.
Brisk spending by the federal government, led by efforts to stimulate the economy and on defense, also played into the third-quarter turnaround. Federal government spending rose at a rate of 7.9 percent in the third quarter, on top of a 11.4 percent growth rate in the second quarter.