Surprise retail sales rise doesn't dispel gloom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. retail sales rose unexpectedly in March as consumers dug deep to cover record high gasoline costs, according to a government report on Monday that did little to dispel the gloom hanging over the economy.

A shopper browses the eggs section at a Wal-Mart store in Santa Clarita, California April 1, 2008. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Retail sales increased 0.2 percent last month after a 0.4 percent fall in February, the Commerce Department said. Wall Street analysts were expecting sales to hold steady.

The rise, however, reflected a surge in gasoline prices that pushed gas station receipts up a sharp 1.1 percent.

Excluding gasoline, sales were flat last month, suggesting the consumer spending that fuels two-thirds of the economy’s thrust is flagging.

“It is a report that seems to highlight that consumers are moving into a more cautious mode,” said Drew Matus, senior financial economist at Lehman Brothers in New York.

The rise in retail sales initially lent U.S. stocks some support, but stocks later fell as an unexpected quarterly loss at Wachovia Corp WB.N hurt bank shares. Bond prices also fell in thin volume, while the dollar was little changed.


The data follows a report last week showing U.S. consumer sentiment hit its lowest level in more than a quarter century in April as worries on jobs and inflation darkened shoppers’ moods.

With employment dropping, factory activity shrinking and no end in sight for the deep housing slump, many economists have concluded the United States has fallen into recession.

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The U.S. Federal Reserve has cut benchmark interest rates by 3 percentage points since mid-September to battle the spreading weakness and has provided liquid funds to financial markets at risk of choking on mortgage-related securities.

The tightening of credit brought on by rising U.S. mortgage defaults threatens to weaken the economy further.

“While the adjustment process by financial intermediaries is showing signs of promise, the healing process is not likely to be linear,” Fed Governor Kevin Warsh warned in a speech, suggesting markets will see further bumps in the road.

The Fed is expected to lower rates again at its next meeting on April 29-30, perhaps by a sizable half-percentage point.


Higher fuel costs are just one factor weighing on consumers. Food prices have also been skyrocketing.

The retail sales report showed sales at food and beverage stores gained 0.4 percent in March, an increase some economists pinned on prices.

Not surprisingly, however, housing-related sales categories continued to exhibit weakness. Building materials and supplies sales slid 1.6 percent, while furniture and appliance store sales were also down.

Clothing and general merchandise stores also saw declines in sales, but sales outside traditional retail outlets -- those via Internet or catalog orders -- were up a solid 2.1 percent.

Slumping demand appears to be leaving businesses with an unwanted build-up of inventories, which could weigh on future production.

Sales at the nation’s retailers, manufacturers and wholesalers fell 1.1 percent in February, the biggest decline since January 2007.

With sales off sharply, the inventory-to-sales ratio, a measure of how long it would to deplete stocks at the current sales pace, rose to 1.28 months from 1.26 in January.

Additional reporting by Doug Palmer in Washington and Chris Reese in New York; Editing by Andrea Ricci