WASHINGTON — Stronger consumer spending and trade gave a lift to the U.S. economy in the final three months of last year, the Commerce Department reported today, but the pace of growth was less than what many analysts were predicting and not robust enough to suggest strong hiring by companies.

The economy grew at a 3.2 percent annual rate in the fourth quarter, an improvement from the 2.6 percent pace in the prior period. But economists were generally expecting the fourth quarter to show a 3.5 percent expansion in the nation’s gross domestic product, the total value of goods and services produced inside U.S. borders.

For all of 2010, GDP grew by 2.9 percent – after contracting by 2.6 percent in 2009.

Economic performance in the latest fourth quarter was boosted by strong personal spending, reflected in the best holiday retail sales since 2006 as consumers felt more confident and made purchases that they had put off during the recession.

U.S. exports also accelerated while the rate of import growth slowed. Company investments also helped the economy, although business spending for equipment and software slowed at the end of 2010.

The fourth-quarter GDP would have been much higher were it not for a fall-off in government spending and private inventories – both of which had stimulated growth in prior quarters. But the benefits from the federal economic stimulus passed in early 2009 have faded, and companies did not beef up inventories of goods as much as before when they were rebuilding stock after the recession.

Some economists expressed disappointment in the latest report, saying that that pace of growth would not translate into a significant decline in the nation’s high unemployment rate. Many forecasters are projecting GDP growth this year to outpace last year’s performance, in part because of the tax-cut deal that is expected to bolster consumer spending and help spur hiring by employers.