Inventories at U.S. wholesalers barely rose in November and growth in October was revised lower, suggesting the economy did not get as big a boost as expected from companies restocking their shelves.
Wholesale inventories climbed 0.1 percent, the Commerce Department reported on Tuesday. Analysts had expected a 0.5 percent gain.
Many economists say a restocking of inventories lifted economic growth in the fourth quarter. Businesses had run down stocks in the prior three months, dragging on the country's gross domestic product.
But the wholesale inventory data, which included a downward revision for inventory growth in October, led some economists to trim their fourth quarter growth forecasts slightly.
Low growth in wholesale inventories implies slightly weaker fourth-quarter GDP, Goldman Sachs economists said in a note to clients.
Forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers lowered its fourth-quarter growth forecast by one-tenth of a point to a 3.3 percent annual rate. That would still be a big improvement, however, from the previous quarter's growth of 1.8 percent.
Sales at the wholesale level grew 0.6 percent in November, a slightly smaller gain than economists expected. At November's sales pace, it would take 1.15 months to clear shelves, unchanged from October.
After a rough patch for the U.S. economy in early 2011, the recovery gathered strength toward the end of the year, helping lower the nation's high unemployment rate. The jobless rate remains elevated at 8.5 percent, however, posing a threat to President Barack Obama's hopes of re-election in November.
Labor Department data showed on Tuesday that the number of U.S. jobs waiting to be filled was little changed in November.
CONFIDENCE EDGES HIGHER
In a separate report, the National Federation of Independent Business said the optimism of small businesses rose in December for a fourth straight month, a sign of growing confidence in the economy's future.
The Conference Board, another private sector firm, said its measure of CEO confidence improved in the last quarter of 2011, although it showed more executives continue to have negative outlooks than positive ones.
Modest improvements in the labor market have helped U.S. consumers to spend more, boosting the wider economy. But some economists speculate some of the spending growth was fueled by leaning more on debt, perhaps unsustainably.
The Federal Reserve said on Monday that outstanding consumer credit rose by the most in a decade during November.
In a sign of how wobbly consumer spending could be in early 2012, the International Council of Shopping Centers on Tuesday said it expects major retailers will report an increase in same-store sales of between just 2 percent and 3 percent during January.
Last week, the ICSC predicted growth of 3 percent during the period.
(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Neil Stempleman and Padraic Cassidy)