Strong auto demand buoys US retail sales; producer prices up

Strong auto demand buoys US retail sales; producer prices up
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WASHINGTON (Jan 13): US retail sales rose in December amid strong demand for automobiles and furniture, providing further evidence that the economy ended the fourth quarter with momentum and is poised for stronger growth this year.

The strengthening economy also is starting to generate higher inflation. Other data on Friday showed a second straight monthly increase in producer prices in December, which led to the biggest year-on-year gain in just over two years.

The Commerce Department said retail sales increased 0.6% last month. November's retail sales were revised up to show a 0.2% rise instead of the previously reported 0.1% gain. Sales were up 4.1% from December 2015. They rose 3.3% for all of 2016, up from 2.3% in 2015.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales rose 0.2% after being flat in November. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast overall retail sales increasing 0.7% and core sales gaining 0.4% last month. The report added to surveys on manufacturing and the services sector in suggesting the economy regained speed at the end of the fourth quarter after appearing to lose some ground in November.

Prices of US Treasuries fell while the US dollar strengthened against the euro, yen and Swiss franc after the data. US stock futures were trading slightly higher.

Rising wages due to a tightening labor market are expected to support consumer spending this year, providing a boost to the economy. Growth is also expected to get a lift from President-elect Donald Trump's pledge to cut taxes, increase infrastructure spending and relax regulations.

Average hourly earnings increased 2.9% in the 12 months through December, the largest gain since June 2009, the government reported last week.

Against the backdrop of a labor market that is at or near full employment, Trump's proposed fiscal stimulus could fan inflation and prompt the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates faster than is currently envisaged.

The Fed raised its benchmark overnight interest rate last month by 25 basis points to a range of 0.50% to 0.75%. The US central bank has forecast three rate hikes for this year. The Atlanta Fed is forecasting GDP rising at a 2.9% annualized rate in the fourth quarter. The economy grew at a 3.5% pace in the third quarter.

INFLATION STIRRING

Even before the anticipated stimulus, inflation is perking up. In a separate report on Friday, the Labor Department said its producer price index for final demand increased 0.3% last month after advancing 0.4% in November.

That lifted the year-on-year increase in the PPI to 1.6%, the largest gain since September 2014. The PPI rose 1.3% in the 12 months through November. Producer prices increased 1.6% in 2016 after falling 1.1% in 2015.

Producer prices are rising as some of the drag from the plunge in oil prices fades. Oil prices have risen above US$50 per barrel. But renewed US dollar strength in the wake of Trump's election could temper some of oil's impact on inflation.

A 2.4% jump in auto sales accounted for much of the rise in retail sales last month. There was also a boost from a 2.0% rise in sales at service stations, reflecting higher gasoline prices.

Sales at building material stores increased 0.5% as did those at furniture shops. Receipts at clothing stores were unchanged despite a generally busy holiday season. Department store giants Macy's and Kohl's Corp last week reported drops in holiday sales.

Department stores have faced stiff competition from online rivals including Amazon.com. Sales at online retailers jumped 1.3% last month after gaining 0.3% in November. Sales at sporting goods and hobby stores rose 0.2%.

But Americans cut back on eating out, with receipts at restaurants and bars falling 0.8% last month.