Strong U.S. retail sales boost economic outlook

FILE PHOTO: A stack of shipping containers are pictured in the Port of Miami in Miami, Florida, U.S., May 19, 2016. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales increased more than expected in June, pointing to strong consumer spending, which could help to blunt some of the drag on the economy from weak business investment.

The report from the Commerce Department on Tuesday did not change market expectations that the Federal Reserve will cut interest rates this month for the first time in a decade.

But signs of strong consumer spending and rising underlying inflation suggest the U.S. central bank is unlikely to cut rates by 50 basis points at its July 30-31 policy meeting as markets had initially anticipated.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell last week told lawmakers the central bank would “act as appropriate” to protect the economy against risks stoked by a trade war between the United States and China, as well as slowing global growth.

“It certainly will counteract weak business spending to some degree,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia. “Given that the Fed is most worried about foreign economies and the threat of an escalating trade war, it is unlikely to dissuade them from cutting rates soon.”

Retail sales increased 0.4% last month as households stepped up purchases of motor vehicles and a variety of other goods. Data for May was revised slightly down to show retail sales gaining 0.4%, instead of rising 0.5% as previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales edging up 0.1% in June. Compared to June last year, retail sales advanced 3.4%.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales jumped 0.7% last month after an upwardly revised 0.6% increase in May. 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% in May.

    June’s strong gain in core retail sales, coming on the heels of solid increases in April and May, suggested an acceleration in consumer spending in the second quarter. Consumer spending grew at its slowest pace in a year in the first quarter.

The dollar rose against a basket of currencies, while U.S. Treasury prices fell.

BROAD GAINS

Consumer spending is being supported by a tight labor market, even as the broader economy is slowing as weaker business investment, an inventory overhang, a trade war between the United States and China, and softening global growth pressure manufacturing.

The Fed reported on Tuesday that manufacturing output rose 0.4% in June, boosted by increased production of motor vehicles and parts, after gaining 0.2% in May. Still, factory production dropped at an annual rate of 2.2% in the second quarter, the biggest drop in three years, after contracting at a 1.9% rate in the January-March period.

“Healthy consumption growth is especially important now amid the U.S. and global industrial slump that we expect to contribute to an outright decline in real business fixed investment in the second quarter and as manufacturers continue to work off the inventory overhang,” said Roiana Reid, an economist at Berenberg Capital Markets in New York.

The Atlanta Fed is forecasting GDP increased at a 1.4% annualized rate in the second quarter. The economy grew at a 3.1% pace in the January-March quarter. The government will publish its snapshot of second-quarter GDP next Friday. The economy is losing speed in part as last year’s stimulus from massive tax cuts and more government spending fades.

Auto sales increased 0.7% in June after a similar gain in May. Receipts at service stations fell 2.8%, reflecting cheaper gasoline. Sales at building material stores rebounded 0.5% after dropping 1.5% in May.

Receipts at clothing stores rose 0.5%. Online and mail-order retail sales climbed 1.7%, matching May’s increase. Receipts at furniture stores advanced 0.5%. Sales at restaurants and bars surged 0.9%. Spending at hobby, musical instrument and book stores was unchanged.

While core inflation perked up in June, gains are likely to remain moderate. A separate report on Tuesday from the Labor Department showed import prices dropped 0.9% last month, the biggest decrease in six months, after being unchanged in May.

Import prices, which exclude tariffs, were held down by a 6.2% drop in the cost of petroleum products. There were also decreases in the prices of imported food and capital goods.

The cost of goods imported from China slipped 0.1%, matching May’s drop. Prices of Chinese goods fell 1.5% in the 12 months through June, the largest decrease since February 2017.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Additional reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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)

U.S. retail sales rebound on autos, building materials

FILE PHOTO: A woman walks with shopping bags at Bryant Park in New York, U.S. December 2, 2016. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. retail sales rebounded sharply in October as purchases of motor vehicles and building materials surged, likely driven by recovery efforts in areas devastated by Hurricane Florence.

The report on Thursday from the Commerce Department also showed broad gains in sales ahead of the holiday shopping season, which bodes well for consumer spending and the overall economy as the fourth quarter gets underway.

Sales could also get a boost from declining oil prices, which are expected to lead to cheaper gasoline.

“The consumer has the wind at their backs and with gasoline prices falling at the pump, we expect even more spending in the next couple of months,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Retail sales increased 0.8 percent last month. But data for September was revised down to show sales slipping 0.1 percent instead of rising 0.1 percent. August sales were also weaker than previously thought.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales increasing 0.5 percent in October. Sales rose 4.6 percent from a year ago.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales increased 0.3 percent last month. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

Data for September was revised lower to show core retail sales rising 0.3 percent instead of gaining 0.5 percent as previously reported. August core retail sales were also revised down to show them falling 0.2 percent instead of being unchanged.

While that suggests some loss of momentum in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, consumption remains underpinned by a strong labor market, characterized by a 3.7 percent unemployment rate.

The lowest unemployment rate in nearly 49 years is boosting wages, with annual wage growth recording its biggest increase in 9-1/2 years in October. Jobs market strength was underscored by a separate report from the Labor Department on Thursday showing a marginal increase in the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits last week.

“Solid job growth and wage increases are the main sources of support for consumer spending and so far, so good,” said Jennifer Lee, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

Strong domestic demand and a tightening labor market support views that the Federal Reserve will increase interest rates in December for the fourth time this year. The U.S. central bank last Thursday kept rates unchanged, but noted that data “indicates that the labor market has continued to strengthen and that economic activity has been rising at a strong rate.”

The dollar was trading higher against a basket of currencies after Thursday’s data, while U.S. Treasury yields fell.

BROAD GAINS

The trend in retail sales, if sustained, could keep the economy on a solid growth path even as business investment is slowing, the trade deficit is expected to deteriorate further and the housing market continues to weaken.

The government reported last month that consumer spending expanded at its fastest pace in nearly four years in the third quarter. Given the downward revisions to core retail sales in August and September, the third-quarter consumer spending estimate is likely to be lowered when the government publishes its second estimate of gross domestic product later this month.

While the Commerce Department said it could not isolate the impact of Hurricane Florence, which lashed North and South Carolina in mid-September, on the retail sales, the storm probably boosted purchases of automobiles and building materials last month.

Auto sales jumped 1.1 percent last month likely as residents in areas affected by Florence replaced damaged cars. Auto sales fell 0.1 percent in September. Sales at building material stores surged 1.0 percent in October.

There were also increases in sales at clothing stores, online retailers and service stations last month. Americans also spent more on hobbies and at bookstores, while cutting back on furniture purchases.

But spending at restaurants and bars slipped 0.2 percent, likely hurt by Hurricane Michael, which soaked the Florida Panhandle in mid-October. Sales at restaurants and bars dropped 1.5 percent in September.

Other data on Thursday offered a mixed picture of the manufacturing sector in early November. The New York Fed said its Empire State general business conditions index rose to a reading of 23.3 this month from 21.1 in October.

A slight moderation in the new orders index was offset by strong increases in labor market measures.

Separately, a survey from the Philadelphia Fed showed a slowing in factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region this month, with its current general activity index tumbling to a reading of 12.9 from 22.2 in October amid a sharp slowdown in new orders.

Firms, however, remained upbeat about business conditions over the next six months. There was also a strong improvement in capital expenditure plans.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)