By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales recorded their smallest increase in six months in February as households cut back on motor vehicle purchases and discretionary spending, the latest indication that the economy lost further momentum in the first quarter.
Other data on Wednesday showed a steady increase in inflation, with the consumer price index posting its biggest year-on-year increase in nearly five years in February. Firming inflation could allow the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates on Wednesday despite signs of slowing domestic demand.
“Nothing here to suggest the Fed shouldn’t raise interest rates at the policy meeting that concludes later today,” said Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.
The Commerce Department said retail sales edged up 0.1 percent last month, the weakest reading since August. January’s retail sales were revised up to show a 0.6 percent rise instead of the previously reported 0.4 percent advance.
Sales were likely held back by delays in issuing tax refunds this year as part of efforts by the government to combat fraud. Compared to February last year retail sales were up 5.7 percent.
February’s retail sales gain was in line with economists’ expectations. Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales rose 0.1 percent after an upwardly revised 0.8 percent jump in January.
These so-called core retail sales, which correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, were previously reported to have increased 0.4 percent in January.
In a separate report, the Labor Department said its Consumer Price Index ticked up 0.1 percent last month as a drop in gasoline prices offset increases in the cost of food and rental accommodation. That was the weakest reading in the CPI since July and followed a 0.6 percent jump in January.
In the 12 months through February, the CPI accelerated 2.7 percent, the biggest year-on-year gain since March 2012. The CPI rose 2.5 percent in the year to January. Inflation is firming in part as the 2015 drop, which was driven by lower oil prices, fades from the calculation.
The so-called core CPI, which strips out food and energy
costs, increased 0.2 percent last month as new motor vehicle prices fell and apparel prices moderated after spiking in January. The core CPI increased 0.3 percent in January.
In the 12 months through February, the core CPI increased
2.2 percent after advancing 2.3 percent in January. It was the 15th straight month the year-on-year core CPI remained in the 2.1 percent to 2.3 percent range.
The Fed has a 2 percent inflation target and tracks an inflation measure which is currently at 1.7 percent.
The U.S. central bank is expected to raise its overnight benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points to a range of 0.75 percent to 1.00 percent on Wednesday. It increased borrowing costs last December and has forecast three rate hikes in 2017.
U.S. financial markets were little moved by the data as traders awaited the outcome of the Fed’s meeting. The Fed will announce its decision on interest rates at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT)
February’s retail sales added to January’s weak reports on trade, construction and business spending that have pointed to sluggish economic growth in the first quarter.
The Atlanta Fed is forecasting GDP rising at a 1.2 percent annualized rate in the first quarter. With the labor market near full employment, slowing growth probably understates the health of the economy. In addition, GDP growth tends to be weaker in the first quarter because of calculation issues that the government has acknowledged and is working to resolve.
Tightening labor market conditions, which are steadily lifting wages, continue to underpin consumer spending.
In February, motor vehicle sales fell 0.2 percent after declining 1.3 percent the prior month. Receipts at service stations slipped 0.6 percent, reflecting lower gasoline prices.
Sales at electronics and appliances stores fell 2.8 percent, the biggest decline since December 2011, after climbing 1.1 percent in January. Receipts at building material stores increased 1.8 percent.
Sales at clothing stores fell 0.5 percent. Retailers including J.C. Penney Co Inc <JCP.N>, Abercrombie & Fitch <ANF.N> and Macy’s Inc <M.N> are scaling back on brick-and-mortar operations amid increased competition from online retailers, led by Amazon.com <AMZN.O>.
Sales at online retailers jumped 1.2 percent last month after increasing 0.5 percent in January. Receipts at restaurants and bars dipped 0.1 percent, while sales at sporting goods and hobby stores fell 0.4 percent.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)