WASHINGTON — Real gross domestic product — the output of goods and services produced by labor and property located in the U.S. — increased at an annual rate of 0.4% in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to the final estimate released by the Commerce Department Thursday.

The GDP growth was just short of the 0.5% increase projected by economists polled by Thomson Reuters, and represented the weakest quarter since a 0.1% annualized growth rate in the first quarter of 2011.

The fourth-quarter figure was, however, an improvement over the 0.1% increase reported in February's preliminary estimate. GDP grew 3.1% in the third quarter.

The final estimate, the third released each quarter, is based on more complete source data than the prior estimates. The upward revision to GDP growth does not change the "general picture of the economy," the Commerce Department said.

Personal consumption expenditures increased at an annual rate of 1.8% in the fourth quarter, after rising at a 1.6% annual rate in the third quarter of 2012. Exports of goods and services fell 2.8%, the biggest drop since a 28.7% plunge in the first quarter of 2009. Imports, which are a subtraction from GDP, decreased 4.2% in the fourth quarter of 2012.

The overall GDP increase reflected the rise in PCE, in nonresidential fixed investment, and in residential fixed investment, the Commerce Department reported. These factors were partly offset by decelerated federal government spending, which included the largest drop in national defense spending since the third quarter of 1972.

Decreased levels of state and local government spending, which fell at a 1.5% annual pace, and private inventory investment were also negative factors for the GDP.

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