February Retail Sales Increase 4.4 Percent Over Last Year

Shoppers in America spent 0.1 per cent less last month despite a 0.4 per cent rise being forecast

USA consumers spent less at auto dealers, gas stations and department stores in February, causing overall retail sales to slip 0.1 percent. However, internet retailers and restaurants were up. The Commerce Department said retail sales slipped 0.1 percent last month instead of falling 0.3 percent as previously expected.

Retail trade sales decreased 0.1% from January and 4.2% from a year ago.

This latest performance was well short of analysts' expectations of a 0.3% increase for February. Year-over-year core sales increased 4.4%.

It was the first time since April 2012 that retail sales have declined for three straight month. For example, many households experienced delays in receiving tax refunds early this year, giving them less money to spend in January and February relative to prior years.

The three-month moving average was also up 4.4% over the same period a year ago. Gasoline station sales are up 7.9% since February 2017.

Analysts at Wells Fargo Securities sounded a similar note: "We remain positive on the consumer this year, even though the first look at consumption in January and February was not what we were expecting". The economy created 313,000 jobs in February. The increase in underlying wholesale prices supports views that consumer inflation will pick up in 2018.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said a key measure of underlying producer price pressures that excludes food, energy and trade services rose 0.4 percent last month, matching January's gain.

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Furniture and home furnishings stores were up 2.9 percent year-over-year but down 0.8 percent from January seasonally adjusted. It was unchanged at 1.8% when food and energy prices are excluded.

General merchandise stores were up 2.4 percent year-over-year but down 0.4 percent from January seasonally adjusted. It estimates the tariffs could push CPI inflation highery by about 0.1 percentage point.

"We firmly believe that core consumer price inflation is rising and the March CPI report will be the acid test of that hypothesis", said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in NY.

Rising interest rates and debt servicing are possible reasons that consumer spending is down. "But, there is certainly an upside risk to this view, with so many upward forces at play", Preston said.

Sales at gasoline stations declined 1.2% during February after growing 1.9% in January.

Sporting goods stores were down 3.4 percent year-over-year but up 2.2 percent from January seasonally adjusted.

"There's clearly some buyers' strike going on in the last couple of months, but we know that consumer fundamentals are incredibly sound", said Tom Porcelli, chief United States economist at RBC Capital Markets in NY. "However, the lack of momentum in the core [rate] will also heighten the argument among the more dovish members that the Fed should remain cautious with no sense of immediacy to hike rates", she said.

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