BEIJING — China's economic growth tumbled to the lowest in more than three years in the latest quarter but retail sales and investment improved in a possible sign a painful slump might be stabilizing.

The world's second-largest economy grew 7.4 percent in the three months ending in September, data showed Thursday. That was down from the previous quarter's 7.6 percent and the lowest since the first quarter of 2009.

Retail sales rose 14.4 percent, a small acceleration over the first half of the year, and investment in industrial assets and some other indicators also showed small improvements.

"Judging from the third quarter figures, we can see a clear sign of steady economic growth," said Sheng Laiyun, spokesman for the National Bureau of Statistics, at a news conference. "There is a smaller margin of decline and some major indicators have been growing faster."

Analysts expect China's economic growth to rebound late this year or early next year but say a recovery is likely to be too weak to drive global growth without improvement in the United States and Europe.

The slowdown is due largely to government lending and investment controls imposed to cool an overheated economy and inflation. But the downturn worsened sharply last year after global demand for Chinese goods plunged unexpectedly.

The government has cut interest rates twice since early June and is injecting money into the economy through high investment by state companies and spending on building airports, subways and other public works. But authorities have avoided launching a massive stimulus after huge spending in response to the 2008 global crisis fueled inflation and a wasteful building boom.

Premier Wen Jiabao, the country's top economic official, said Wednesday growth appeared to be stabilizing and he expressed confidence the country can meet its official targets for the year. Wen gave no growth forecast or a possible time frame for a recovery.

"Economic growth is stabilizing and we are confident through our efforts we can achieve the full-year targets for economic and social development," the premier said in a Cabinet statement.