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Strengthening economy raises hopes for higher rates

Within the first 10 days of December, three things happened that could set the stage for higher interest rates in 2014.

As things have stood for the past five years, the level of interest rates has been highly dependent on the strength of the economy. Early December brought three signs that 2014 may be a better year for growth, and thus one that could bring higher interest rates.

1. GDP was revised significantly upward

On December 5, the Bureau of Economic Analysis' second estimate of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for the third quarter indicated that the economy grew at a rate of 3.6 percent. That's a significant improvement from the 2.8 percent originally estimated, and an even greater improvement over the 2.5 percent growth rate of the second quarter. The only discouraging note: A significant portion of the third quarter's growth came from inventory increases rather than final product sales. Inventory increases go through periodic cycles, but if final sales continue to lag behind, it will be a bad sign for the economy.

2. Employment growth had another strong month

While the GDP figures looked back a couple months to the third quarter, the employment figures released on December 6 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed more a more recent sign of strength in the economy. Net employment growth in the United States was 203,000 jobs in November -- the second consecutive month with job growth of 200,000 or better and an improvement over the average of 195,000 new jobs per month over the prior year.

3. A tentative budget deal was reached

Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Patty Murray, lead Congressional budget negotiators for their respective sides, announced a tentative agreement to approve a budget that would give the country a break from the series of short-term fiscal standoffs of recent years. The deal is limited in that it does not address the country's long-term fiscal problems, but at a time when the economy seems to be gathering momentum, preventing another government crisis from getting in the way may be very helpful.

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