U.S. consumers flex muscle: Import prices signal weak inflation

February 12, 2016 09:05 AM

U.S. consumer spending regained momentum in January as households ramped up purchases of a variety of goods, in a hopeful sign that economic growth was picking up after slowing to a crawl at the end of 2015.

Other data on Friday showed import prices fell in January for a seventh straight month as the cost of petroleum products continued to decline and a strong dollar undercut prices for a range of goods, pointing to weak inflation in the near term.

The Commerce Department said retail sales excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services increased 0.6 % last month after an unrevised 0.3 % decline in December.

These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product. Economists had forecast core retail sales increasing 0.3 % last month.

"The markets may have decided that the U.S. is headed for recession, but obviously no one told U.S. consumers," said Paul Ashworth, chief economist at Capital Economics in Toronto.

U.S. stock index futures extended gains after the data, while prices of U.S. government debt fell further. The dollar was stronger against a basket of currencies.

Growth in consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, moderated in the fourth quarter. That, together with weak export growth because of dollar strength, efforts by businesses to sell inventory and cuts in capital goods spending by energy firms, restrained GDP growth to a 0.7 % annual pace.

Consumer spending is being supported by a strengthening labor market, which is starting to lift wages. Still, households remain cautious about boosting spending, against the backdrop of an uncertain global economic outlook and a sustained decline in oil prices, which have sparked a broad stock market sell-off.

Weak Inflation

Signs of firming consumer spending are likely to be welcomed by Federal Reserve policymakers. But given the volatility in equities markets and weak U.S. inflation, the central bank could find it hard to raise interest rates this year.

The Fed increased its key short-term interest rate in December, the first hike in nearly a decade.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said import prices dropped 1.1 % last month after decreasing 1.1 % in December.

Import prices have decreased in 17 of the last 19 months, reflecting the robust dollar and plunging oil prices.

Lower oil prices have translated into cheaper gasoline, boosting household discretionary spending but also weighing on sales at service stations.

In January, a 3.1 % drop in receipts at service stations restricted the gain in overall retail sales to 0.2 %. Retail sales for December were revised to show a 0.2 % rise instead of the previously reported 0.1 % dip.

The increase in retail sales was also tempered by harsh winter weather, which hurt spending at restaurants and bars.

Auto sales advanced 0.6 % in January after rising 0.5 % in December. Receipts at clothing stores gained 0.2 %. Sales at online retailers jumped 1.6 %, but receipts at sporting goods and hobby stores fell 2.1 %. Sales at electronics and appliance outlets edged up 0.1 %.

A snowstorm that blanketed much of the northeastern United States last month boosted sales at building materials and garden equipment stores, which rose 0.6 %. But receipts at restaurants and bars fell 0.5 %, the largest drop since January 2014.

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