WASHINGTON: U.S. retail sales increased less than expected in November as Americans cut back on discretionary spending despite a strong labor market, raising fears of a much faster slowdown in fourth-quarter economic growth than currently anticipated.
The report from the Commerce Department on Friday bucked a recent raft of fairly upbeat data on the labor market, housing, trade and manufacturing that had suggested the economy was growing at a moderate speed despite headwinds from trade tensions and slowing global growth.
The Federal Reserve on Wednesday kept interest rates steady and signaled that borrowing costs were likely to remain unchanged at least through next year amid expectations the economy would continue to grow modestly and the unemployment rate remain low.
"Just when it looked like the economy was getting stronger, consumers faltered in November," said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financial in New York. "Because consumption accounts for the lion's share of GDP these days, a consumer spending slowdown is a concern, especially in the fourth quarter, when consumption is seasonally strongest."
Retail sales rose 0.2per cent last month. Data for October was revised up to show retail sales increasing 0.4per cent instead of climbing 0.3per cent as previously reported. November's meager sales gains are at odds with reports from retailers of brisk business during the Thanksgiving period. Some economists believed the data would be revised higher when the government publishes December's retail sales report in January.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales would accelerate 0.5per cent in November. Compared to November last year, retail sales increased 3.3per cent.
Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales edged up 0.1per cent last month after rising by an unrevised 0.3per cent in October. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.
Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, grew at a 2.9per cent annualized rate in the third quarter. November's small rise in core retail sales could prompt economists to lower their GDP growth estimates for the fourth quarter, which are currently converging around a rate of 1.8per cent. The economy grew at a 2.1per cent pace in the third quarter.
U.S. Treasury yields extended their fall after the release of the data. U.S. stock index futures reversed earlier gains to trade largely flat before markets opened. The dollar was weaker against a basket of currencies.
IMPORTED INFLATION SUBDUED
Despite the slim gains in retail sales in November, consumer spending likely remains supported by a strong labor market. The government reported last week that the economy created 266,000 jobs in November and the unemployment rate fell back to 3.5per cent, its lowest level in nearly half a century.
Last month, auto sales increased 0.5per cent after rising 1.0per cent in October. Higher gasoline prices lifted receipts at service stations by 0.7per cent. Online and mail-order retail sales increased 0.8per cent after increasing 0.6per cent in October.
Sales at electronics and appliance stores increased 0.7per cent. Receipts at building material stores were unchanged and sales at clothing stores fell 0.6per cent. Spending at furniture stores edged up 0.1per cent. Americans cut back on spending at restaurants and bars, with sales falling 0.3per cent.
Receipts at healthcare and grooming stores also fell. Spending at hobby, musical instrument and book stores dropped 0.5per cent.
A separate report from the Labor Department on Friday showed imported inflation remained subdued in November. Import prices increased 0.2per cent last month, lifted by higher prices for petroleum products, after declining 0.5per cent in October.
Import prices exclude tariffs. Last month's increase in import prices was in line with economists' expectations. In the 12 months through November, import prices decreased 1.3per cent after dropping 3.0per cent in October.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)