The U.S. economy grew at a rate of 2.2 percent in the first quarter of 2012, Commerce Department data released Friday show. Peter Whoriskey reports:

People bought more cars, furniture and clothes, boosting the economy even as businesses invested more cautiously and governments, constrained by post-recession budget woes, cut spending. Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of the economy, rose 2.9 percent in the first quarter, beating expectations.

“Despite consumer anxiety over gas and food prices that are stretching household budgets, consumers are still spending,” Kathy Bostjancic, director for macroeconomic analysis, at The Conference Board.

The Dow Jones rose slightly with the news, inching up a quarter of a percentage point by noon.

But while the figures may be embraced by Wall Street, at least a few signs suggest that consumers are still struggling.

The personal saving rate declined again, to 3.9 percent, meaning that people had less left over from their spending sprees. Their incomes grew but didn’t keep up with their rising debt.

Though the rate was below analysts’ expectations, Brad Plumer writes that it’s not worth fretting about:

GDP figures are, after all, just a first-pass estimate — and they’ll be revised later on. “Given the noise in the advance GDP estimate,” says Justin Wolfers, “a number 0.3% below consensus isn’t really at odds with either bullish or bearish sentiment.”

Some people might read this statements as an attempt to spin away bad news for President Obama’s re-election bid. But it’s not. (After all, the revisions could be even worse.) It’s more an acknowledgment that first-pass GDP estimates have usually been way off in recent years.

Stock markets were up slightly after the report. Bloomberg News reports:

Equities rose even after data showed the U.S. economy expanded at a 2.2 percent annual rate in the first quarter, less than the 2.5 percent increase forecast by economists. Confidence among U.S. consumers climbed in April to the highest level in a year, according to a separate report.

Pacific Investment Management Co.’s Mohamed El-Erian said lower-than-forecast U.S. growth suggests additional monetary stimulus remains on option for the Federal Reserve even though there is no immediate need for action.

“If we continue this weakening trend, the Fed will come back in and try to sustain this market and this economy,” El- Erian, the chief executive officer of the world’s largest manager of bond funds, said during an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop” with Betty Liu. “I don’t think there is an immediate need now.”

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