Retail sales in May rose at the strongest pace since January 2006, while import prices surged, adding to recent data suggesting the U.S. economy is recovering strongly from a first-quarter slowdown.

Sales by U.S. retailers rose 1.4 percent, more than twice as much as expected, as consumers shrugged off higher gasoline prices and a housing slump to spend more on cars, clothing, building materials and electronics, a Commerce Department report showed on Wednesday.

Businesses also ramped up inventories at a faster-than expected 0.4 percent pace in April, the department said in a report that suggested further restocking would boost second-quarter gross domestic product growth.

Import prices, which are monitored closely by Federal Reserve policy-makers as a potential source of inflation, rose in May for the fourth straight month on higher petroleum costs, the Labor Department reported.

The economy is coming back stronger than anybody could imagine, said Mark Vitner, economist at Wachovia Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina. We were probably one of the most optimistic groups on the street, and the economy is surpassing even our expectations.

The dollar rallied to a 4-1/2 year high against the yen, while U.S. stocks rose on the strong economic data. Treasury bond prices also rose after sharp declines in recent weeks.

The latest data adds to evidence that the U.S. economy is rebounding quickly from a moribund first quarter. U.S. job growth came at a robust 157,000 in May while exports have been growing and factory activity has picked up. Some recent housing data also has shown stabilization in the sector.

The data also helped further cement market views that the Federal Reserve is unlikely to cut interest rates this year and may even raise them at some point to help cool inflation.


The increase in retail sales was the biggest since January 2006 and was far stronger than the 0.6 percent increase predicted by Wall Street economists in a Reuters poll. April sales were revised to a 0.1 percent fall from a 0.2 percent decline.

Excluding automobiles, which account for 20 percent of total retail business, sales rose 1.3 percent following a 0.1 percent April rise. Analysts had expected a 0.7 percent increase excluding motor vehicles and parts sales.

Sales at gasoline stations rose 3.8 percent in their strongest monthly increase since April 2006, but excluding gasoline, retail sales still rose a healthy 1.2 percent.

Sales at building materials and garden supplies retailers rose 2.1 percent in May, while clothing retailers rang up a 2.7 percent jump and motor vehicle and parts dealer sales rose 1.8 percent. General merchandise stores sales rose 1.0 percent and recently struggling department stores, staged a 1.3 percent gain in May, their biggest since October 2005.

The relatively strong job market has kept spending energized and will contribute to a solid bounce back in overall economic growth in the second quarter, said Brian Bethune, U.S. economist with Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.

U.S. import prices rose 0.9 percent in May. Wall Street economists were expecting a 0.3 percent gain in import prices following a 1.4 percent increase in April. Imported petroleum prices climbed 2.7 percent in May, the fourth straight monthly gain, after a bigger 6.6 percent rise in April.

The 0.4 percent April percent gain in inventories at retailers, manufacturers and wholesalers beat analysts' forecasts for a 0.3 percent rise, but did not keep up with the 0.7 percent gain in business sales for the month.

The April stocks-to-sales ratio -- the number of months to deplete inventories at the current sales pace -- fell to 1.27 months from 1.28 months in March, suggesting that businesses may need to rebuild their stocks to sustain sales.

If April's rate of inventory build is sustained for the quarter, inventory investment could add 1-1/4 percentage points to real GDP growth in the second quarter, Bear Stearns economists wrote in a report after the data.