U.S. retail sales excluding auto purchases rose for a second month in September, raising cautious optimism consumer spending could support the economy's fledgling recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s.
Non-auto sales rose a stronger-than-expected 0.5 percent last month, a Commerce Department report on Wednesday showed, building on the 1 percent gain reported in August and beating economists' expectations for a 0.2 percent increase.
The data cemented views the economy started growing again in the July-September period after four quarters of decline, even though overall retail sales slumped 1.5 percent as car-buying incentives expired.
While the consumer may be more prudent in the way they spend money, the data would indicate they are certainly spending money, said Bruce Shalett, managing partner at Wynston Hill Capital in New York. The consumer is participating in the recovery.
The retail sales report and forecast-beating earnings from Intel Corp
However, an unexpectedly big drop in U.S. business inventories in August raised the risk of the economy's third-quarter rebound being dented slightly, so that it might miss forecasts for a growth pace of between 3.5 percent and 4 percent.
Business inventories fell 1.5 percent in August, the biggest drop since December, the Commerce Department said. Wall Street economists had looked for only a 0.9 percent decline.
CONSUMER SPENDING IMPROVING
U.S. car sales tumbled 10.4 percent last month, the largest fall since August 2005, as the government's popular cash for clunkers program ended. The program, which gave consumers cash to trade in aging gas-guzzlers for new fuel-efficient cars, had helped push sales up 7.8 percent in August.
Elsewhere, however, there were solid sales gains across almost all categories in September. Sales were probably supported by back-to-school buying, as well as the best furniture and home furnishings sales since January 2007.
Underlying consumer demand is a lot stronger than what some people think. Typically the back-to-school is a good predictor for holiday sales, said John Canally, economist at LPL Financial in Boston.
Canally said consumer spending, which normally accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, would prove vital in fostering growth strong enough to create jobs.
The U.S. jobless rate hit a 26-year high of 9.8 percent last month and many economists worry that relentlessly high unemployment will be a drag on consumer spending and take some steam out of the economy's nascent recovery.
The Federal Reserve, in minutes of its September 22-23 policy meeting, said policy-makers had discussed the importance of retaining the flexibility to increase or scale back the U.S. central bank's asset purchases if the economic outlook changed.
Retail sales in September also were supported by a 1.1 percent rise in receipts at gasoline stations, which enjoyed a 4.7 percent sales increase in August. Excluding both gasoline and motor vehicles, retail sales rose 0.4 percent.
Core retail sales -- stripping out gasoline, autos and building materials -- rose 0.4 percent, adding to the 0.7 percent gain in August.
Businesses, meanwhile, were still slashing stocks of unsold goods to cope with weak demand. This could potentially inflict a small dent in third-quarter gross domestic product growth.
Analysts generally believe a slowdown in the pace of inventory liquidation helped to lift the economy out the recession that started at the end of 2007.
JPMorgan pared its third quarter gross domestic product growth forecast to a 3.5 percent pace from 4 percent.
The most significant factor behind our revision is the surprisingly aggressive pace of inventory shedding. While that surprise has implied softer growth last quarter, it also should add to growth in the current quarter, said economist Michael Feroli.
Separately, U.S. mortgage applications fell last week as interest rates on 30-year loans rose above 5 percent for the first time in four weeks after falling to a four-month low, the Mortgage Bankers Association said.
(Additional reporting by Alister Bull in Washington and Julie Haviv in New York, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)