U.S. retail sales, jobless claims data brighten economic picture

FILE PHOTO: People walk with shopping bags at Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City, New York, U.S., December 7, 2018. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales increased by the most in 1-1/2 years in March as households boosted purchases of motor vehicles and a range of other goods, the latest indication that economic growth picked up in the first quarter after a false start.

The economy’s enduring strength was underscored by other data on Thursday showing the number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits dropped to the lowest in nearly 50 years last week.

Fears of an abrupt slowdown in activity escalated at the turn of the year after a batch of weak economic reports. But those concerns have dissipated in recent weeks amid fairly upbeat data on trade, inventories and construction spending that have suggested growth last quarter could actually be better than the moderate pace logged in the final three months of 2018.

A report from the Federal Reserve on Wednesday described economic activity as expanding at a “slight-to-moderate” pace in March and early April. The Fed’s “Beige Book” report of anecdotal information on business activity collected from contacts nationwide showed a “few” of the U.S. central bank’s districts reported “some strengthening.”

“Supported by strong labor market conditions and improving wage growth, household spending appears well positioned to increase in the coming months,” said Jim Baird, chief investment officer at Plante Moran Financial Advisors in Kalamazoo, Michigan. “Fears about the softening in the economy were overblown.”

The Commerce Department said retail sales surged 1.6 percent last month. That was the biggest increase since September 2017 and followed an unrevised 0.2 percent drop in February.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales would accelerate 0.9 percent in March. Retail sales in March advanced 3.6 percent from a year ago.

With March’s rebound, retail sales have now erased December’s plunge, which had put consumer spending and the overall economy on a sharply lower growth trajectory. Retail sales last month were probably lifted by tax refunds, even though they have been smaller than in previous years, following the revamping of the U.S. tax code in January 2018.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales rebounded 1.0 percent in March after a downwardly revised 0.3 percent decline in February. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

They were previously reported to have decreased 0.2 percent in February. Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of economic activity and is being buoyed by a tightening labor market that is driving up wage growth.

STRONG LABOR MARKET

A separate report from the Labor Department on Thursday showed initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 192,000 for the week ended April 13, the lowest level since September 1969. Claims have now declined for five straight weeks. Economists had forecast claims would rise to 205,000 in the latest week.

Though the trend in hiring has slowed, job gains remain above the roughly 100,000 needed per month to keep up with growth in the working-age population. The unemployment rate is at 3.8 percent, near the 3.7 percent Fed officials project it will be by the end of the year.

The dollar was trading higher against a basket of currencies while stocks on Wall Street were mixed. Prices of U.S. Treasuries were up.

March’s strong core retail sales could result in the further upgrading of first-quarter GDP estimates. Growth forecasts for the first quarter were boosted to around a 2.5 percent annualized rate on Wednesday after data showed the U.S. trade deficit narrowed for a second straight month in February.

First-quarter growth forecasts have been raised from as low as a 0.5 percent rate following relatively strong reports on trade, inventories and construction spending. The economy grew at a 2.2 percent pace in the fourth quarter.

Another report from the Commerce Department on Thursday showed business inventories rose in February and stock accumulation in the prior month was a bit stronger than initially estimated, a potential boost to growth.

Stronger growth in the first quarter will probably not change the view that the economy will slow this year as the stimulus from a $1.5 trillion tax cut package diminishes and the impact of interest rate hikes over the last few years lingers.

It also is unlikely to have any impact on monetary policy after the Fed recently suspended its three-year campaign to tighten monetary policy. The central bank dropped projections for any rate hikes this year after increasing borrowing costs four times in 2018.

In March, sales at auto dealerships jumped 3.1 percent, the most since September 2017. Receipts at service stations increased 3.5 percent, likely reflecting higher gasoline prices.

Receipts at clothing stores shot up 2.0 percent, the largest increase since last May. There were also increases in sales at furniture outlets, electronics and appliances shops, and food and beverage stores. Sales at building materials and garden equipment and supplies also rose last month.

Online and mail-order retail sales increased 1.2 percent in March. Sales at restaurants and bars climbed 0.8 percent, the most since last July. But receipts at hobby, musical instrument and book stores fell 0.3 percent last month.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

Fed’s Williams expects further U.S. rate increases into next year

President and Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, John Williams, gestures as he addresses a news conference in Zurich, Switzerland September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

By Jonathan Spicer

NEW YORK (Reuters) – One of the most influential Federal Reserve policymakers said on Tuesday he expects further interest-rate hikes continuing next year since the U.S. economy is “in really good shape,” reinforcing the Fed’s upbeat tone in the face of growing doubts in financial markets.

Even as New York Fed President John Williams told reporters he expects the U.S. expansion to carry on and surpass its previous record around mid-2019, stock markets headed lower Tuesday morning while a potentially worrying trend of “inversion” continued to grip Treasury markets.

The Fed is expected to raise its policy rate another notch this month and, according to policymakers’ forecasts from September, aims to continue tightening monetary policy three more times next year. Futures markets, however, are betting a slowdown overseas and in sectors like U.S. housing will force the Fed to stop short.

Yet Williams, a permanent voter on policy and close ally of Fed Chair Jerome Powell, said lots of signs point to a “quite strong” and healthy labor market, and he predicted economic growth of around an above-potential 2.5 percent in 2019.

“Given this outlook I describe of strong growth, strong labor market and inflation near our goal – and taking into account all the various risks around the outlook – I do continue to expect that further gradual increases in interest rates will best foster a sustained economic expansion and a sustained achievement of our dual mandate,” Williams said at the New York Fed.

(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S households see spending up, job prospects improving: New York Fed survey

- A shopper walks down an aisle in a Walmart Neighborhood Market in Chicago

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Consumers expect to boost spending in the months ahead and voiced confidence they are more likely to find a job and less likely to lose one in a strong labor market, the New York Federal Reserve reported Monday in its latest monthly survey of consumer expectations.

Nearly 35 percent of the 1,300 heads of household included in the June poll said they were better off economically than a year go, a record in the four years the survey has been conducted.

The results bolster the current Fed outlook of an economy that continues to generate jobs despite tepid overall growth and some concern about a recent dip in inflation, improving chances the central bank can follow through with plans for a further interest rate increase later this year.

Though household expectations of inflation for the year ahead did dip slightly from the May survey, to 2.5 percent from 2.6 percent, respondents expect strong price increases of 2.8 percent over the coming three years. That’s consistent with the Fed’s current outlook that the recent weakness in inflation will prove temporary.

The survey also bolstered the view of continued strong consumption growth. Half of those polled said they expected to spend at least 3.3 percent more in the coming year, compared to median expected spending growth of 2.6 percent in the May survey. One-year-ahead expected earnings growth increased to 2.5 percent in the June survey from 2.2 percent in May.

Respondents also showed broad faith in the strength of the labor market, with a slight dip to 13.5 percent from 13.6 percent in the perceived probability of losing a job in the next year, and a jump to 59.2 percent from 56.7 percent in the probability of finding employment.

More than a fifth of respondents said they might leave a job voluntarily in the next year, up from 19.4 percent in May. Voluntarily job exits are considered a sign of a strong labor market that offers employees choices.

The online poll is designed to be a representative sample of the U.S. population. The New York Fed did not provide the margin of error for the poll.

 

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci)