Consumers shook off the pandemic blues as 2021 began, putting stimulus checks to work buying cars and other goods and helping set the stage for what could be the fastest economic growth in decades.
The initial reading on the country’s first-quarter economic performance, delivered Thursday by the Commerce Department, showed that much remained far from normal. Even with a big jump in personal income, there was only a modest increase in spending on services like travel, dining and even health care.
But economists say that is already changing as more vaccinations are delivered and coronavirus-related business restrictions are eased. With better weather, savings accumulated during a long year of lockdowns, and an itch to make up for forced inactivity, Americans will have plenty of reasons to go out and spend.
“Consumers are now back in the driver’s seat when it comes to economic activity, and that’s the way we like it,” said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “A consumer that is feeling confident about the outlook will generally spend more freely.”
Over all, the broadest measure of the economy — gross domestic product — grew by 1.6 percent in the first three months of 2021, compared with 1.1 percent in the final quarter of last year. On an annualized basis, the first-quarter growth rate was 6.4 percent.
Total economic output should return to prepandemic levels by summer — in fact, Mr. Daco believes it has already done so. His firm estimates…