U.S. business inventories unchanged; sales surge

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. business inventories were unchanged in March as sales increased by the most in more than two years, which could ease concerns of a broad build-up in inventories in the economy.

The Commerce Department said on Wednesday that the flat reading in business inventories followed an unrevised 0.3% increase in February. Inventories are a key component of gross domestic product, and March’s unchanged reading was in line with economists’ expectations.

Retail inventories fell 0.3% in March as estimated in an advance report published earlier this month. Motor vehicle inventories dropped 0.9% as previously reported. That was the biggest decline since September 2017.

Retail inventories excluding autos, which go into the calculation of GDP, were unchanged in March as reported earlier this month.

The government reported last month that inventory investment added 0.65 percentage point to the economy’s 3.2% annualized growth rate in the first quarter. Economists expect the first-quarter GDP growth estimate could be trimmed to a 3.0% pace when the government publishes its revision later this month.

Wholesale inventories dipped 0.1% in March. Stocks at manufacturers rose 0.4%. The inventory glut appears to be concentrated in the manufacturing sector, which could undercut production.

Business sales jumped 1.6% in March, the biggest rise since December 2016, after rising 0.2% in the prior month. Sales at wholesalers surged 2.3% while those at manufacturers rose 0.7%.

At March’s sales pace, it would take 1.37 months for businesses to clear shelves, down from 1.39 months in February. The motor vehicle inventory-to-sales ratio was at 2.29 months in March, suggesting production at auto assembly plants could remain low.

Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci