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Retail sales point to flagging economic momentum

A shopper carries bags from Tiffany & Co. jewelers along 5th Avenue in New York City, April 4, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Segar
A shopper carries bags from Tiffany & Co. jewelers along 5th Avenue in New York City, April 4, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Segar

By Jason Lange

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Retail sales contracted in March for the second time in three months and consumer confidence tumbled in April, a sign tax hikes early this year stole momentum from the economy.

Sales fell 0.4 percent in March, missing analysts' expectations for a flat reading, Commerce Department data showed on Friday.

The data suggests consumer spending was considerably weaker in the first quarter than analysts previously believed, and many cut economic growth forecasts for the period.

Prior reports had made consumers look relatively resilient despite an increase in tax rates in January on most Americans.

"The payroll tax increase is hurting," said Ian Shepherdson, an economist at Pantheon Macroeconomic Advisors in White Plains, New York.

Readings for sales have been volatile this year, making it difficult to know how much of the recent weakness has been due to higher taxes and how much might be because of temporary factors related to the weather.

But supporting the view that tighter fiscal policy is the culprit, a closely watched gauge of consumer spending unexpectedly fell in March and the government revised the readings for January and February sharply lower.

These so-called core sales, which strip out cars, gasoline and building materials, fell 0.2 percent last month. This measure corresponds closely with the consumer spending component of the government's measure of gross domestic product.

"The miss in retail sales sends concerns about the impact of higher payroll taxes," said Omer Esiner, a market analyst at Commonwealth Foreign Exchange.

Economists also cited an increase in gasoline prices earlier this year as a factor holding back sales.

Forecasting firm Macroeconomic Advisers lowered its estimate of first-quarter economic growth by three tenths of a percentage point to a 3 percent annual rate.

That would be much stronger than the 0.4 percent rate clocked in the fourth quarter, although much of the acceleration is expected to come from a temporary build up of inventories. Reinforcing that expectation, a separate Commerce Department report showed retail inventories rose 0.4 percent in February when stripping out cars.

Growth is expected to slow sharply in the second quarter largely because fiscal policy tightened further in March, when the federal government began across-the-board spending cuts known in Washington as the "sequester," part of Washington's efforts to shrink the budget deficit.

U.S. stocks declined on the weak retail sales data and as results from major banks failed to impress investors. Prices for U.S. Treasuries rose, while the dollar declined against the yen.

SENTIMENT TUMBLES

A separate report suggested the government's belt tightening was damaging consumer sentiment.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's preliminary reading on the overall index of consumer sentiment fell to 72.3 in April, the lowest since July 2012 and below economists' forecasts.

Over the entire year, Washington's austerity drive could subtract about 1.5 percentage points from economic growth this year, according to an estimate by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

"The worry is the full reaction to the expiration of the payroll tax cut and to the sequester budget cuts won't be evident until sometime this quarter," said Cary Leahey, a senior advisor at Decision Economics in New York.

Economists said the loss of momentum evident in many economic indicators for March could reflect a warm winter, which may have led companies and consumers to pull forward spending, and a chilly March may have then dulled activity.

Indicators from retail sales and hiring to factory manager confidence were much stronger in February.

SUBDUED INFLATION

A fourth report showed wholesale prices fell sharply in March due to lower gasoline costs. That will come as a relief to consumers beset by high prices at the pump, and could help the U.S. Federal Reserve maintain its very accommodative monetary policy.

Producer prices fell 0.6 percent in March, their biggest drop in 10 months, as gasoline prices tumbled, the Labor Department said. Economists polled by Reuters had expected prices received by the nation's farms, factories and refineries to fall only 0.2 percent.

In the 12 months through March, wholesale prices were up 1.1 percent, the smallest rise since July. Prices had increased 1.7 percent in February.

The benign inflation environment could strengthen the argument for the Fed to keep monetary policy loose as it tries to steer the economy towards faster growth, despite divisions among policymakers over continued asset purchases.

"This is not the time to take away the accommodation," Boston Federal Reserve Bank President Eric Rosengren told CNBC television in an interview.

Minutes of the Fed's March 19-20 meeting released on Wednesday showed the central bank was moving closer to ending its monthly $85 billion purchases of mortgage and Treasury bonds to keep rates low and spur faster job growth.

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani in Washington; and by Nick Olivari, Ellen Freilich and Steven C. Johnson in New York; Editing by Neil Stempleman)

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