US retail sales up more than expected in February

Thursday 13 March 2014 16.43
US retail sales increased 0.3% last month as receipts rose in most categories despite harsh winter weather
US retail sales increased 0.3% last month as receipts rose in most categories despite harsh winter weather

US retail sales rebounded in February and new applications for unemployment benefits hit a fresh three-month low last week, suggesting some strength in the economy after harsh weather abruptly slowed activity in recent months.

The Commerce Department said that retail sales increased 0.3% last month as receipts rose in most categories.

That followed a revised 0.6% drop in January and ended two months of declines in a row.

An unusually cold and snowy winter disrupted economic activity at the end of 2013 and the beginning of this year.

Economists had expected a 0.2% increase in retail sales in February after snow and ice blanketed densely populated regions during the first half of the month.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 315,000.

That was the lowest reading since late November. Economists had forecast first-time applications for jobless benefits rising to 330,000 in the week ended March 8.

The four-week moving average for new claims, considered a better measure of underlying labour market conditions as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell to its lowest level since early December.

Harsh US weather has hurt job growth, but the labour market is starting to break out of winter's grip. Non-farm payrolls increased 175,000 in February.

Retail sales are expected to accelerate in the spring as warmer temperatures and improving household finances help to unleash pent-up demand. Rising homes values and stock prices, as well as some increases in wages, have left household balance sheets in much better shape since the recovery started nearly five years ago.

So-called core sales, which strip out cars, petrol, building materials and food services, and correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, rose 0.3% in February. 

But core sales in January were revised to show a 0.6% decline instead of only a 0.3% fall. That suggested consumer spending in the first quarter could be somewhat weaker, despite February's rise in sales. 

Consumer spending rose at a 2.6% annual pace in the fourth-quarter of 2013, with the overall economy expanding at a 2.4% rate during that period.

In a second report, the Commerce Department said business inventories rose 0.4% in January. Retail inventories excluding cars, which factor into the calculation of GDP, posted their largest gain since last July. That could see inventories contributing to growth this quarter.

Retail sales last month were supported by a rise in receipts at car and parts dealers. That helped to offset a drop in sales at electronics and appliance stores. Receipts at building materials and garden equipment stores increased likely as US consumers bought snow removal equipment.

Sales at furniture stores rose as did receipts at clothing stores and online retailers. There were also gains in receipts at sporting goods shops and restaurants. Sales at food and beverage stores, however, fell.