* U.S retail sales drop 2.7 pct in Dec
* Import, export prices fall fifth straight month in Dec
* Nov business inventories post biggest decline in 7 yrs
* Mortgage applications rose last week on refinancing (Adds business inventory data)
By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Sales at U.S. retailers fell 2.7 percent in December, government data showed on Wednesday, as a deteriorating economic climate forced consumers to cut back on spending during the key holiday period.
The Commerce Department said total retail sales fell to a seasonally adjusted $343.2 billion last month, taking sales for the whole of 2008 down 0.1 percent.
The data was the latest in a series suggesting that the year-long recession was deepening and could be the longest since the 1981 contraction that lasted 16 months.
December’s drop was the biggest since October last year when sales fell 3.4 percent. Compared to the same period a year ago, sales plunged by a record 9.8 percent, beating an all-time 8.2 percent drop in November.
“The economy is staring at a very steep, downward trajectory. This shows a very sharp falling in household wealth and job creation. This shows a shock in consumer confidence,” said Jim Demasi, chief fixed-income strategist at Stifel Nicolaus & Co.
Declining household wealth, rising unemployment, tight credit conditions and an unclear economic picture have forced consumers to cut back sharply on spending. Consumer spending accounts for about a third of economic activity.
Excluding motor vehicles and parts, sales were down a record 3.1 percent after a revised 2.5 percent decline in November, previously reported as a 1.6 percent drop, the department said. Total sales, excluding autos, rose 3.0 percent in 2008.
Analysts polled by Reuters had forecast December retail sales falling 1.2 percent. Excluding motor vehicles, sales had been predicted to drop 1.3 percent.
U.S. stocks opened sharply lower, with the S&P 500 index down almost three percent. Treasury debt prices rose, tapping a safe haven bid.
Underscoring the grim economic outlook, business inventories fell 0.7 percent in November, the biggest decline since November 2001, when they dropped 1.1 percent. That drop was slightly worse than analysts’ forecasts for a 0.5 percent fall.
The inventories decline could subtract from fourth quarter gross domestic product numbers.
“It’s a pretty bad wipeout. It is consistent with the view that this is probably comparable to the big recessions we had in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Retail sales were dragged lower as gasoline sales tumbled 15.9 percent after diving by a record 18.3 percent in November. Sales in department stores fell 2.3 percent in December following a 1.7 percent gain in November.
Clothing stores sales dropped 2.5 percent in December after rising 0.1 percent in November and sporting-goods sales also were down 0.4 percent last month following a 2.1 percent increase in November.
Both are categories of goods that typically are bought as Christmas presents, but shoppers were in a less generous mood.
Sales of new cars and parts fell 0.7 percent last month, extending a 0.3 percent drop seen in November. Lack of access to credit and mounting job losses have seen steep falls in new car sales over the past months.
Further highlighting the deepening economic slump, import and export prices both fell for the fifth consecutive month in December, a Labor Department report showed.
Import prices dropped 4.2 percent after falling by a revised 7.0 percent in November. The December drop was less than the 5.3 percent decline expected by Wall Street analysts.
But on a bright note, mortgage applications rose last week, spurred by a surge in demand for refinancing.
The Federal Reserve reduction of its benchmark interest rates to virtually zero and a pledged to ensure financial markets are flush is helping to lower mortgage rates.
However, low mortgage rates have yet to fuel demand for loans to purchase homes. The The Mortgage Bankers Association said its index measuring mortgages to buy homes fell 14.1 percent last week. (Additional reporting by Doug Palmer in Washington and Richard Leong and John Parry in New York, Editing by Andrea Ricci)