U.S. retail sales rise in Jan., stabilizing after a slump

OVERALL U.S. RETAIL SALES increased 0.2 percent in January after a 1.6 percent decrease prior month. / BLOOMBERG NEWS FILE PHOTO/DAVID PAUL MORRIS
OVERALL U.S. RETAIL SALES increased 0.2 percent in January after a 1.6 percent decrease prior month. / BLOOMBERG NEWS FILE PHOTO/DAVID PAUL MORRIS

NEW YORK – United States retail sales stabilized in January after a plunge the prior month that was larger than first reported, indicating consumers may still be able to help support growth after a dismal end to 2018.

The value of overall sales rose 0.2 percent after a 1.6 percent decrease prior month, Commerce Department figures showed Monday. The median forecast in Bloomberg’s survey called for an unchanged reading.

Sales in the “control group” subset, which some analysts view as a cleaner gauge of underlying consumer demand, rose 1.1 percent, topping estimates after a 2.3 percent drop in the prior month. The measure excludes food services, car dealers, building-materials stores and gasoline stations.

The stronger-than-expected report should ease concern about consumer strength after a surprisingly weak December that was likely hurt by the government shutdown and seasonal factors. Months of higher wage gains, tax cuts and a robust labor market have supported spending, the largest part of the economy, and fresh strength bodes well for it to continue buoying growth in the first quarter.

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Eight of 13 major retail categories showed improvement. The gains reflected the biggest jump for building materials since late 2017, the best rise for food and beverage stores since early 2016 and the strongest gain for sporting goods and hobby stores since 2013.

The spending tally, while encouraging, still isn’t likely to sway the Federal Reserve officials, who’ve said they’d pause on interest rate decisions for the near term to gauge the impact of multiple headwinds on the U.S. economy. Chairman Jerome Powell said in an interview with the CBS program “60 Minutes” Sunday that the central bank will watch retail sales data for signs consumer spending bounced back.

Other indicators signal a weaker start to 2019, including Friday’s jobs report showing February payrolls growth was the weakest in more than a year. Still, consumers are also the most confident about current conditions in 18 years, Conference Board data show.

Filling-station receipts fell 2 percent. The figures aren’t adjusted for price changes, so lower sales could reflect lower gasoline costs, sales, or both. Oil prices have rallied this year from a fourth-quarter plunge.

Automobile dealer sales slumped 2.4 percent, the most in five years, after a gain the previous month. Industry data from Ward’s Automotive Group previously showed U.S. unit sales fell to a five-month low in January.

Excluding automobiles and gasoline, retail sales rose 1.2 percent, after a 1.6 percent drop the previous month.

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While the report was delayed by the government shutdown, the Census Bureau said that response rates were at or above normal levels for the January data. Estimates in the Bloomberg  survey ranged from a 0.9 percent decline to a 1 percent gain. Sales at non-store retailers rose 2.6 percent for the best gain in more than a year. The retail-sales data capture just under half of all household purchases and tend to be volatile. Personal-spending figures, due at the end of the month for January, provide a fuller view of consumption.

 Katia Dmitrieva is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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