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 0.1% in the fourth quarter of 2012, according to the preliminary estimate released by the Commerce Department Thursday.

The GDP growth was short of the 0.5% increase projected by economists polled by Thomson Reuters, but represented an improvement over the 0.1% decline reported in January's advance estimate. GDP grew 3.1% in the third quarter.

The 0.1% annualized rate of GDP growth, if not revised upward in the final estimate, would make the fourth quarter of 2012 the weakest since the first quarter of 2011's 0.1% increase.

Personal consumption expenditures increased at an annual rate of 2.1% in the fourth quarter, after rising at a 1.6% annual rate in the third quarter of 2012.

The 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 1.3% annual pace, and private inventory investment were also negative factors for the GDP.

The preliminary estimate is based on data that is more complete than the advance estimate, but it remains subject to further revision, according to the Commerce Department's Bureau of Economic Analysis. The department will release its third and final estimate March 28.

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