WASHINGTON - The U.S. economy appears to be gathering momentum ahead of the critical holiday shopping season.

It's growing faster, corporate profits are rising, and companies are laying off the fewest workers in six years, government reports show.

"The momentum looks strong," said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at the Bank or Tokyo-Mitsubishi.

Encouraging as the latest figures are, hopes for a robust finish to 2013 hinge on strong hiring. And that depends, in part, on what the government's November jobs report shows when it is released Friday.

The recovery from the Great Recession that ended 41/2 years ago has come in fits and starts. And even Thursday's government report that the economy grew at a robust annual rate of 3.6 percent from July through September was hardly cause for celebration.

Nearly half the growth came from businesses building up stockpiles, a temporary factor. Excluding stockpiling, annual growth last quarter was 1.9 percent.

Unless consumers step up spending during the holiday season, stockpiling is likely to slow, "perhaps severely," said Pierre Ellis, a senior managing director at Decision Economics.

Most economists foresee a sharp slowdown in growth during the October-December quarter as businesses do less stockpiling. Early estimates for economic growth are at or below an annual rate of 1.5 percent.

Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, cautioned that a drop in fourth-quarter growth might not necessarily signal a weakening economy. Ashworth noted that the report on third-quarter growth showed that business sales surged, corporate profits rose, income grew, and Americans saved more.

The report adds "to the evidence that the recovery is gaining momentum," Ashworth said.

To sustain that strength, the economy needs more jobs. On Friday, the government will show whether steady gains in hiring over the last few months continued in November.

"It's the one number that can come out and be 180 degrees in the opposite direction of what you thought," Rupkey said.

The economy has added a solid average of 202,000 jobs a month from August through October. And the number of people applying for unemployment benefits has fallen over the last month back to mid-2007 levels.

Unemployment remains high at 7.3 percent.

The Federal Reserve has pegged its stimulus efforts to the unemployment rate. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has said the central bank will ease its monthly purchases of $85 billion in bonds if hiring improves consistently.

In fact, expectations that the Fed will pull back because of the stronger economy led the stock market to drop slightly Thursday.