US retail sales point to strong domestic demand

15 Jun, 2016 9:26 am

WASHINGTON – US retail sales rose strongly in May as Americans bought automobiles and a range of other goods, even as they paid more for gasoline, suggesting that economic growth was gaining steam despite a sharp slowdown in job creation.

Other data on Tuesday hinted at a steady build-up of inflation pressures, with import prices recording their largest increase in just over four years in May as the drag from a strong dollar and lower oil prices fades.

“As has been the case in the prior two years, the modest first-quarter disappointment in consumer spending now appears to be a short-lived soft patch,” said Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan in New York. “This number also lends credence to the idea that the big miss on May payrolls may have been sending an overly pessimistic signal on growth.”

The Commerce Department said retail sales increased 0.5 percent last month after surging by an unrevised 1.3 percent in April. The second straight month of gains boosted sales 2.5 percent from a year ago. Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales rose a solid 0.4 percent last month after an upwardly revised 1.0 percent increase in April.

These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product. They were previously reported to have risen 0.9 percent in April. Economists had forecast both overall retail and core sales gaining 0.3 percent last month.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said import prices increased 1.4 percent last month, the largest rise since March 2012, after advancing 0.7 percent in April. In the 12 months through May, import prices fell 5.0 percent, the smallest decline since November 2014.

The dollar’s surge and a plunge in oil prices between June 2014 and December 2015 had dampened inflation. But with the dollar weakening 1.5 percent against the currencies of the United States’ main trading partners this year and oil prices near $50 per barrel, that drag is starting to lift.

The signs of fairly healthy domestic demand and rising imported inflation will likely be welcomed by officials at the Federal Reserve, who convene for a two-day meeting starting on Tuesday.

While May’s weak employment report has all but ruled out an interest rate increase at this meeting, the steady flow of upbeat economic reports keeps a hike in July on the table. The economy added only 38,000 jobs in May, the smallest gain since September 2010.

“This won’t spur the Fed to raise interest rates tomorrow, but it could cast a more positive tone on the statement… setting the stage for an increase in July,” said Sal Guatieri, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

The dollar rose against a basket of currencies, while U.S. stocks fell. Prices for US government debt rose marginally.

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