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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. economic growth slowed less than previously estimated in the fourth quarter as the biggest gain in consumer spending in three years partially offset the drag from a jump in imports.

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A shopper is seen in a Target store in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., November 14, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Gross domestic product expanded at a 2.9 percent annual rate in the final three months of 2017, instead of the previously reported 2.5 percent, the Commerce Department said in its third GDP estimate for the period on Wednesday. That was a slight moderation from the third quarter’s brisk 3.2 percent pace.

The upward revision to the fourth-quarter growth estimate also reflected less inventory reduction than previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had expected that fourth-quarter GDP growth would be revised up to a 2.7 percent rate.

There are signs that economic activity slowed further in the first quarter, with retail sales falling in February for a third straight month. Housing data have been generally weak and the trade deficit hit a more than nine-year high in January.

Estimates of the first-quarter GDP growth rate are currently just below 2.0 percent. Still, analysts believe the economy will hit the Trump administration’s 3 percent annual growth target this year, driven by a $1.5 trillion income tax cut package and a planned increase in government spending.

That could keep the door open to slightly more aggressive interest rate increases from the Federal Reserve this year. The U.S. central bank raised rates last week and forecast at least two more hikes for 2018. The Fed also lifted its economic growth projections for this year and 2019.

The economy grew 2.3 percent in 2017, an acceleration from the 1.5 percent logged in 2016.

The government also reported on Wednesday that after-tax corporate profits increased at a 1.7 percent rate in the fourth quarter after rising at a 5.7 percent pace in the third quarter.

The government said while provisions of the income tax overhaul that came into effect in January had no effect on corporate profits for current production, they had an impact on net cash flow in the fourth quarter.

An alternate measure of growth, gross domestic income, rose at a 0.9 percent rate in the October-December period. GDI expanded at a 2.4 percent rate in the third quarter.

The average of GDP and GDI, also referred to as gross domestic output and considered a better measure of economic activity, increased at a 1.9 percent rate in the fourth quarter. That followed a 2.8 percent rate of growth in the prior period.

Prices of U.S. Treasuries pared gains after the data. U.S. stock index futures were mixed while the dollar .DXY was stronger against a basket of currencies.

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Containers are seen at the port in San Pedro, California, U.S., March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Riha, Jr.

ROBUST CONSUMER SPENDING

Growth in consumer spending, which accounts

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