WASHINGTON, Feb. 21, 2012 /PRNewswire/ -- The 2012 outlook is improving modestly from a disappointing 2011. Economic growth picked up in the fourth quarter of 2011 to 2.8 percent and is expected to come in at 2.3 percent for 2012, up from 1.6 percent growth for all of last year, according to Fannie Mae's (OTC Bulletin Board: FNMA) Economic & Strategic Research Group. However, the year-end growth rate was due largely to a positive swing in business inventory growth, which is not indicative of underlying consumer demand or the overall health of the economy. Nevertheless, consumer spending improved modestly and manufacturing and services activity expanded at a strong pace. Importantly, labor market conditions continued to improve with nonfarm payroll job growth increasing nearly 250,000 across many industries, including construction. The unemployment rate dropped to 8.3 percent, down from 8.5 percent the month prior, as the large increase in employment outweighed a growing number of people joining the work force -- indicating a genuine improvement in the labor market. If we continue to see this level of positive data, the Group notes, the labor market may become an upside determinant for an improved outlook. Housing also showed signs of improvement late last year with existing home sales rising in December for the third consecutive month. Indicators point to some good pickup in construction of apartment buildings and modest pickup in single-family construction in some locations. Overall, housing is expected to add to gross domestic product (GDP) for the first time in seven years, albeit by a very modest amount. Near-term improvement in housing sales is expected to be quite modest due to the current very low level of sales and continued expected declines in home prices, which remain a challenge to the housing market. "Risks to the forecast are more balanced between the upside and downside since our January forecast," said Fannie Mae Chief Economist Doug Duncan. "The economy appears to be more resilient than in previous months, and should be less vulnerable to shocks, including any spillover from the European sovereign debt crisis. However, economic growth will remain constrained by various headwinds, such as a potential spike in oil prices due to tension in the Middle East; an expected decline in net exports from the global slowdown; and an expected increase in fiscal drag, including the fading of federal spending from the stimulus and a decline in defense spending for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan." For an audio synopsis of the February 2012 Economic Outlook, listen to the podcast on the Economic & Strategic Research site at www.fanniemae.com. Visit the site to read the full February 2012 Economic Outlook, including the Economic Developments Commentary, Economic Forecast, Housing Forecast, and Multifamily Market Commentary. Opinions, analyses, estimates, forecasts, and other views of Fannie Mae's Economic & Strategic Research (ESR) Group included in these materials should not be construed as indicating Fannie Mae's business prospects or expected results, are based on a number of assumptions, and are subject to change without notice. How this information affects Fannie Mae will depend on many factors. Although the ESR Group bases its opinions, analyses, estimates, forecasts, and other views on information it considers reliable, it does not guarantee that the information provided in these materials is accurate, current, or suitable for any particular purpose. Changes in the assumptions or the information underlying these views could produce materially different results. The analyses, opinions, estimates, forecasts, and other views published by the ESR Group represent the views of that group as of the date indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of Fannie Mae or its management.Fannie Mae exists to expand affordable housing and bring global capital to local communities in order to serve the U.S. housing market. Fannie Mae has a federal charter and operates in America's secondary mortgage market to enhance the liquidity of the mortgage market by purchasing or guaranteeing mortgage loans originated by mortgage bankers and other lenders so that they may lend to home buyers. Our job is to help those who house America.