US consumer spending strengthening in boost to economy

Monday, 17 December 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Durable goods are seen on sale in a store in Los Angeles, California,- REUTERS

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. consumer spending gathered momentum in November as households bought furniture, electronics and a range of other goods, which could further allay fears of a significant slowdown in the American economy even as the outlook overseas continued to darken.

The upbeat data from the Commerce Department on Friday bolstered expectations that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates for a fourth time this year at its 18-19 Dec. policy meeting, despite moderating inflation and tighter financial market conditions.

It also stood in stark contrast to reports from China showing a dramatic fall-off in retail sales in the world’s second-largest economy and from Europe where a key measure of business activity expanded at its slowest rate in four years.

The U.S. central bank has hiked rates three times this year.

“Today’s report shows Fed officials consumers just aren’t confident, they are also putting their money where the mouths are and buying enough goods to keep the economy humming,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Retail sales excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services surged 0.9% last month after an upwardly revised 0.7% increase in October.

These so-called core retail sales, which correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, were previously reported to have gained 0.3% in October. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast core retail sales rising 0.4% last month.

November’s increase in core retail sales and upward revisions to October’s data suggested a brisk pace of consumer spending in the fourth quarter. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy, increased at a 3.6% annualized rate in the July-September quarter.

A sharp sell-off on Wall Street and partial inversion of the U.S. Treasury yield curve had stoked fears of a recession. But worries over the economy’s health were eased on Thursday after government data showed the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell back to a near 49-year low last week.

A Reuters poll released on Thursday showed economists now see the risk of recession in the next two years at 40%, up from 35% last month.

In the wake of the strong core retail sales numbers, economists bumped up estimates for fourth-quarter gross domestic product growth to as high as a 3.0% rate from around a 2.4% pace.

The economy grew at a 3.5% pace in the July-September period. Spending is being boosted by a tightening labor market, which is starting to spur faster wage growth, lower taxes and moderate inflation. It remains strong despite the sharp stock market losses.

The dollar hit a 19-month peak against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose, while stocks on Wall Street fell on fears the global economy was slowing.

Consumer spending in the fourth quarter could also get a boost from a surge in demand for utilities in November.

In a separate report on Friday, the Fed said industrial production rebounded 0.6% last month after falling 0.2% in October.

Industrial output was driven by a 3.3% surge in utilities production as an unseasonably cold November boosted demand for heating. Mining production rose 1.7%.

But manufacturing output was unchanged after dipping in October, indicating that obstacles remain for the economy despite consumers’ exuberance.

“We expect to see continued softening in the pace of manufacturing growth in the coming year, as both U.S. and global growth slow and the dollar remains a headwind for exporters,” said Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Overall retail sales, however, rose only 0.2% in November as cheaper gasoline undercut sales at service stations. Gasoline prices have dropped about 40 cents per gallon since October, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.Oil prices have fallen by a third since the start of October amid concerns about oversupply and cooling global growth.

Retail sales increased by an upwardly revised 1.1% in October. They were previously reported to have surged 0.8%.

Sales at service stations tumbled 2.3% last month, the biggest drop since May 2017, after rising 3.2% in October. Auto sales gained 0.2% after accelerating 1.5% in the prior month.

Sales at building material stores slipped 0.3%.

Receipts at clothing stores dropped 0.2% after jumping 1.3% in October. The drop in clothing sales probably reflects deep discounting by retailers seeking to lure shoppers.

Online and mail-order retail sales surged 2.3%, the largest gain in a year, after increasing 0.8% in October.

Receipts at furniture stores rebounded 1.2%. Sales at electronics and appliance stores increased 1.4%. Spending at hobby, musical instrument and book stores increased 0.4%. But sales at restaurants and bars fell 0.5% after rising 0.6% in October.