HONG Kong's economy received a clean bill of health for the first three months of the year, with gross domestic product (GDP) growing 5.5 per cent compared with the same period last year, according to preliminary figures released by the Government yesterday. Economists cited strong private consumption and a marked increase in construction output as factors for the growth, which was towards the high end of expectations. The significant increase in expenditure in consumer goods and services pushed private consumption expenditure up by 10.6 per cent in real terms over the same period. According to Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce chief economist Ian Perkin, domestic private consumption was strong in the first quarter, as reflected in retail sales and receipts from restaurants. ''We are running well ahead of Government forecasts on domestic consumption, which were earlier revised down to seven per cent for the whole year,'' he said, adding that higher income and gains from the stock market had helped to fuel private consumption. The growth in domestic consumption was particularly significant when compared with the past two years, said Lehman Brothers economist Sophie Huang. Ms Huang said domestic consumption in the first quarters of 1993 and 1992 had grown 7.6 and 9.1 per cent, respectively. W I Carr economist Richard Staite said that confidence in the economy - helped by the rising stock market plus property prices and bonuses paid out at the beginning of the year - had brought on the feeling of wealth which had encouraged people to spend. ''People are likely to go out to spend when they feel wealthy,'' he said. ''When they see property prices rising - even though they may not be selling their flats - they feel confident economically because it means the value of their flat is appreciating.'' However, Mr Staite said domestic consumption was likely to slacken following the rise in interest rates which resulted in a correction in the stock market and contributed to the drop in property prices. The growth in construction output was largely attributed to substantial Government spending on the airport and infrastructure development. Mr Perkin said high Government spending had pushed gross domestic fixed capital formation - spending on infrastructure such as plant and equipment - into a 13.2 per cent rise in real terms. In this component of construction, expenditure jumped 25.5 per cent during the first quarter. Ms Huang cited the dramatic rise in property prices as a catalyst for the increase in private construction. ''Local construction expenditure is not driven by the same factors as industrialised countries, [one of] which is interest rates,'' she said. ''In Hong Kong, because of negative interest rates, private construction growth is driven by supply and demand. ''In this case, the property boom experienced [from] the end of last year right to March 29 this year, prior to the Government's announcement to act against property speculation, [resulted in growth in] private construction to meet the demand of end users and speculative demand.'' Export of services edged up 8.6 per cent in real terms in the first quarter, slightly less than in the same period last year. This indicates that the slowdown in the mainland economy may have affected the demand for services from Hong Kong. On the other hand, the territory's expanding economy sucked in foreign services, pushing up those imports by 9.7 per cent. Some economists expect Hong Kong's GDP growth to fall back slightly to about 5.1 to 5.3 per cent for the whole year.