Better-than-expected growth figures in the fourth quarter suggest the worst could be over for the United States economy, but Asian exporters need to hang on for a long, slow ride to recovery, according to analysts. However, they were encouraged by the fact the 0.2 per cent growth for the final three months of last year was driven by consumers' voracious appetite for goods which cut inventories at record speed. Hong Kong Trade Development Council assistant chief economist Dickson Ho Tat-kuen said the US, Hong Kong's biggest market for finished products, was not poised for a sharp rebound. 'The US economy is flirting with the zero baseline, a little bit above and a little bit below,' Mr Ho said. New business investment in the US will be slow as the excesses of the technology bubble are worked out. Mr Ho said demand for products exported by Hong Kong and China, such as apparel, toys and games, would follow the general trends in US economic growth. 'I think, in general, American companies are deliberately running low inventory levels,' Mr Ho said, accounting for the pre-Christmas rush in orders from US importers. 'Ever since late last year, the size of the orders has not been particularly large compared with what used to be the case, because importers are taking a longer view . . . we might not see orders grow in a big way before March or late April,' Mr Ho said. Jim Hildebrandt, managing director of strategy consulting firm Bain & Co (Hong Kong), warned against too much focus on data from one quarter. 'I think what is positive is the way consumer spending is holding up, a lot of businesses now are starting to order for next Christmas,' he said. ING Barings chief economist for Asia, excluding Japan, Tim Condon, was not worried about consumer debt levels in the US threatening recovery. He maintained his US forecast for 'anaemic growth' of 1 per cent this year. 'The slashing of inventories was double in the fourth quarter what it was in the third quarter, so businesses are going to start spending again,' Mr Condon said. Evidence of a US recovery coming sooner rather than later would buoy Hong Kong consumers to 'start to part with some of their savings . . . so a consumer-led recovery will start to pick up now', Mr Condon said. US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan indicated in a speech on Wednesday that the next move in US interest rates would be up, he said. Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce chief economist Ian Perkin said the US might still experience an extended period of slow growth. 'It's going to take a long time before we start to see big growth rates of consumer goods out of China,' Mr Perkin said, adding this could affect his 2 per cent to 3 per cent Hong Kong growth forecast for this year. 'We might lag a little bit longer than we normally would from a recovery in the US.' Speaking after an economic forum yesterday, Standard Chartered Bank Hong Kong chief executive and general manager Peter Wong Tung-shun said the year-end surge in US retail sales was driven mostly by zero-interest loans for cars. 'The most important thing is whether that trend is sustainable. I think we should watch for one or two more months . . . and we need to see whether there's any improvement in other retail sectors,' he said. University of Hong Kong economics professor Richard Wong Yue-chim said a US recovery could be delayed by household and corporate debt restructuring.