The slumping U.S. economy barely improved early this year, with businesses slashing spending and inventories, according to a surprising report indicating the recession didn't ease as much as expected.

Gross domestic product decreased at a seasonally adjusted 6.1% annual rate January through March despite rising consumer spending, the Commerce Department said Wednesday in its first estimate of first-quarter GDP.

The 6.1% drop was much bigger than Wall Street expected and hardly different than a 6.3% plunge in the fourth quarter, when the recession that began in December 2007 deepened.

Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires expected a 4.6% drop in GDP during the first three months of 2009. With a 0.5% drop in the third quarter, GDP has now fallen three consecutive quarters. That hasn't happened in 34 years, since third-quarter 1974 through first-quarter 1975.