ByJohn S. McClenahen The U.S. Commerce Department now says the American economy, reflecting the effects of a slower rate of inventory drawdown than originally expected, grew at a statistically stratospheric annual rate of 8.2% during the third calendar quarter of this year. About a month ago, the department estimated third-quarter growth at a torrid 7.2%. Now the major question is how much will the economy slow during the current quarter. "We still expect [fourth-quarter] GDP growth to decelerate to 3% as consumer spending slows to just a 1.8% annual rate from the stimulus-injected 6.4% pace in [the third quarter]," says David A. Rosenberg, chief North American economist at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York. More optimistic is Maury Harris, chief U.S. economist at UBS Investment Research, also in New York. "We tentatively still expect growth to moderate to only 3.5% in [the fourth quarter], partly reflecting robust gains in consumer confidence." Consumer confidence, as measured by the Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Index, continued to climb this month. The index for November was 91.7 (1985=100), up 10 percentage points from October's 81.7, the New York-based business research group reported Nov. 25. The group's two related consumer measures also rose in November. The Conference Board's Present Situation Index surged to 80.1 this month from 67.0 in October, and its Expectation's Index rose to 99.4 this month from 91.5 last month. "Consumer confidence is now at its highest level since the fall of 2002," says Lynn Franco, director of the Conference Board's Consumer Research Center. "The improvement in the Present Situation Index, especially in the jobs component, suggests that consumers believe a slow but sure labor market turnaround is under way. The rise in expectations is a signal that consumers will end this year much more upbeat than when the year began." An apparently improving U.S. labor market is not the only reason for consumer confidence. Sales of existing single-family homes remained close to monthly records in October. Although the sales of existing homes declined 4.9% in October to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.35 million from a record rate of 6.68 million in September, last month's pace was the third highest on records, says the National Association of Realtors, Chicago.