The recession-hit U.S. economy is proving weaker than economists expected just a month ago, but forecasters still think a recovery is in the cards for later this year, a survey released on Tuesday showed.

The consensus of the 51 forecasters surveyed looks for U.S. gross domestic product to tumble at a sharp 5.3 percent annual rate in the first quarter and to decline at a 2 percent pace in the second quarter.

In the third quarter, however, economists expect the economy to expand at a 0.5 percent rate, followed by a 1.8 percent fourth-quarter gain.

For the year as a whole, the economy is expected to shrink 2.6 percent, which would be the largest annual contraction since the Great Depression. A month ago the survey pointed to a drop of 1.9 percent.

A huge drop in business inventories, further declines in non-residential fixed investment and another sharp drop in residential investment are expected to drive economic weakness in the first half of 2009, the survey said.

In the first half of the year the economy will also be pressured by continued, albeit diminishing declines in consumer spending and falling exports, it added.

By the second half consumers are expected to open their wallets, encouraged by the sharp drop in energy costs, tax cuts contained in a recently passed fiscal stimulus package and some loosening of credit conditions, the survey said.

However, consumer enthusiasm will likely be tempered by reminders of sharp declines in home prices and retirement savings and stubbornly high levels of unemployment.

The unemployment rate now is expected to average 8.6 percent this year and 9.1 percent in 2010, the highest back-to-back years of unemployment since 1982-1983, the survey said.

The pace of the recovery should quicken next year, the survey found. In the first quarter of 2010, the economy is expected to grow at a 2.3 percent pace, which is expected to quicken to a 3.1 percent pace by year end.

The latest poll was conducted prior to a government report on Friday that showed the unemployment rate surged to a 25-year high of 8.1 percent last month as employers cut 651,000 jobs.

(Reporting by Nancy Waitz; Editing by Dan Grebler)