The economy expanded at a sluggish pace in the fourth quarter although a big gain in business investment and higher exports of services led the government to push up its previous estimate for growth.

Gross domestic product expanded at a 0.4 percent annual rate, the Commerce Department said on Thursday, just below the 0.5 percent gain forecast by analysts in a Reuters poll.

The growth rate was the slowest since the first quarter of 2011 and far from what is needed to fuel a faster drop in the unemployment rate. It was, however, higher than the government's previous estimate of a 0.1 percent growth rate.

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)