WASHINGTON — U.S. nonfarm productivity grew at a 2.6% annual rate in the fourth quarter, matching the average expansion rate of the past decade, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Unit labor costs, a ratio of hourly compensation to labor productivity, dropped 0.6%. Hourly compensation increased 1.9% and output jumped 4.5%.

Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, said productivity expanded 3.6% in 2010 — the fastest pace since 2002. The resulting labor cost reduction is helping offset inflation from high commodity prices.

"The recovery is regaining momentum, albeit unevenly," Swonk said.

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