WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. retail sales fell less than expected in February, but a sharp downward revision to January's data could reignite concerns about the economy's growth prospects.
Tuesday's weak report from the Commerce Department bucked the trend of recent labor market data that had suggested the economy remained on solid ground despite some fears of a looming recession.
The data could give the Federal Reserve more reason to keep interest rates unchanged on Wednesday, when it is due to release its latest policy statement.
"The economy's engines are not going into reverse ... but at the moment, it is hard to see GDP with a 2 percent handle. Based on today's lackluster sales report, policymakers will be in no hurry to raise interest rates," said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG Union Bank in New York.
Retail sales dipped 0.1 percent last month as automobile purchases fell and cheaper gasoline undercut receipts at service stations. January's retail sales were revised down to show a 0.4 percent drop instead of the 0.2 percent gain previously reported.
Underscoring the report's weakness, retail sales excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services were unchanged last month after a downwardly revised 0.2 percent increase in January.
These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product and were previously reported to have risen 0.6 percent in January. Economists had forecast retail sales slipping 0.2 percent and core retail sales advancing 0.2 percent in February.
The retail sales report combined with sliding oil prices to push U.S. stocks lower. The S&P 500 retail index .SPXRT, however, was little changed. Prices for U.S. government debt were marginally higher, while the dollar .DXY was largely unchanged against a basket of currencies.
Last month's weak core retail sales reading, together with January's modest gain, suggest that consumer spending will probably remain tepid in the first quarter after growing at a 2.0 percent annualized rate in the fourth quarter.
Still, consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy, remains supported by a strengthening labor market and rising house prices. Economists cut their first-quarter GDP growth estimates by as much as half a percentage point to as low as a 1.9 percent rate after the data.
The economy grew at a 1 percent pace in the fourth quarter.
Economic growth prospects were further dented by another report from the Commerce Department showing business inventories edging up 0.1 percent in January as sales continued to decline.
That pushed the inventory-to-sales ratio to its highest level since May 2009, suggesting inventories could remain a drag on growth in the near term.
"The buildup looks unintentional. We would not be surprised to see businesses try to rein in inventories in the coming months," said Tim Quinlan, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The reports came as Fed officials gathered for a two-day policy meeting. The U.S. central bank is expected to stand pat as policymakers monitor developments on global financial markets, domestic inflation and the labor market.
The Fed hiked its benchmark overnight interest rate in December for the first time in nearly a decade.
In a third report, the Labor Department said its producer price index dropped 0.2 percent last month on lower energy and food costs, after edging up 0.1 percent in January.
In the 12 months through February, the PPI was unchanged after falling 0.2 percent in January. It was the first time since January 2015 that the year-on-year PPI did not decline.
A key measure of underlying producer price pressures that excludes food, energy and trade services rose 0.1 percent last month after advancing 0.2 percent in January. The so-called core PPI was up 0.9 percent in the 12 months through February, the largest gain since July 2015.
"These increases argue against the idea that deflation risks are spilling over into the U.S. economy," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.
Retail sales last month were weighed down by a 4.4 percent drop in the value of sales at service stations. Gasoline prices dropped 9 percent in February, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Auto dealerships, furniture retailers and electronics and appliance stores all had lower sales. But there were some pockets of strength, with sales rising at clothing stores and building materials and garden equipment merchants.
Receipts rose at restaurants and bars as well as at sporting goods and hobby stores, showing that consumers still have an appetite for discretionary spending.
Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao and Dan Grebler