WASHINGTON Wholesale inventories recorded their biggest decline in nearly 1-1/2 years in February as petroleum stocks tumbled and overall sales rose solidly, which could see first-quarter growth estimates shaved.
The Commerce Department said on Tuesday wholesale inventories fell 0.3 percent, the largest drop since September 2011, after a revised 0.8 percent rise in January.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected stocks of unsold goods at U.S. wholesalers to rise 0.5 percent after a previously reported 1.2 percent increase in January.
Inventories are a key component of gross domestic product changes. A slow pace of inventory accumulation helped to hold back economic growth to a 0.4 percent annual pace in the fourth quarter.
Economists expect a pickup in restocking by businesses to boost growth in the first quarter, but February's unexpected decline could cause some to lower their GDP estimates. Growth estimates for the first three months of 2013 range as high as a 4.0 percent rate.
Data this week on overall business inventories for February and March retail sales could shed more light on first-quarter GDP estimates.
The value of petroleum stocks fell 1.7 percent in February after slipping 0.3 percent in January. Automotive inventories were flat after rising 0.2 percent the prior month.
Sales at wholesalers rebounded 1.7 percent after falling 0.8 percent in January. Economists had expected sales to rise 1.3 percent.
Sales at wholesalers in February were lifted by petroleum, which surged 10.6 percent, the largest rise since June 2008, after falling 4.0 percent the prior month. Auto sales fell 0.6 percent after rising 0.5 percent in January.
At February's sales pace it would take 1.19 months to clear shelves. The inventories/sales ratio was at 1.21 months in January.
(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)