By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON, April 9 U.S. wholesale inventories recorded their biggest decline in nearly 1-1/2 years in February, prompting some economists to lower their lofty first-quarter growth estimates.
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.
January sales were previously reported to have increased 1.2 percent and economists had expected stock to rise 0.5 percent in February.
The surprise fall reflected a sharp drop in the value of petroleum inventories and a solid rise in overall sales at wholesalers. Inventories are a key component of gross domestic product changes.
"The wholesale inventory data for February and the downward revision to the data for January indicate that the change in inventories in the first quarter was much weaker than we had previously been anticipating," said Daniel Silver an economist at JPMorgan in New York.
"We will reevaluate our forecast after Friday's reports on retail sales and retail inventories."
JPMorgan said its first-quarter GDP growth was now tracking 3.3 percent, lower than its 4.0 percent forecast.
Macroeconomic Advisers cut their first-quarter growth estimate by four tenths of a percentage point to 3.2 percent. Barclays said the weak inventory figure had brought its GDP tracking estimate down three tenths of a point to 3.2 percent.
A slow pace of inventory accumulation helped to hold back economic growth to a 0.4 percent annual pace in the fourth quarter. Economists had expected a pickup in restocking by businesses to boost growth in the first three months of 2013.
Data this week on overall business inventories for February and March retail sales could offer more clues 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.
Stocks of machinery and furniture barely rose, while metal inventories fell. There were also declines in paper, farm products and grocery inventories in February.
Sales at wholesalers rebounded 1.7 percent in February, beating economists' expectations for a 1.3 percent advance. Sales had risen 0.8 percent in January.
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.
There were also increases in the sales of furniture, apparel and farm products. Metal sales saw their largest increase in just over a year.
Auto sales, however, 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.