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US retail sales surge, inflation pressures muted

world Updated: Apr 14, 2010 19:32 IST

Reuters
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Sales at US retailers rose more strongly than expected in March, pointing to a broadening of the manufacturing-led economic recovery as inflation pressures remained muted.

The Commerce Department said on Wednesday total retail sales jumped 1.6 per cent, the largest increase since November as consumers stepped up purchases of vehicles and wide range of goods. January sales were revised up to a 0.5 per cent rise from 0.3 per cent.

Analysts polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales increasing 1.2 per cent last month.

Separately, Labor Department data showed consumer prices rose 0.1 per cent last month, matching economists' expectations for a tame reading and giving the Federal Reserve leeway to maintain ultra-low interest rates.

"The consensus has been the consumer has not yet come back. I guess (the retail data) should neutralize some of those worries. The question that will remain is how sustainable is the consumer recovery going to be," said Subodh Kumar, chief investment strategist at Subodh Kumar & Associates in Toronto.

US stock index futures added to gains after retail sales data, while US Treasury debt prices pared early losses. The US dollar extended gains versus yen.

Consumers are defying high unemployment and tight access to credit to spend, offering hope that the recovery from the worst economic downturn in 70 years will continue when the lift from government stimulus and the swing in the inventory cycle ebbs.

Growing confidence in the recovery, particularly brightening job market prospects, is encouraging households to tap into the savings to fund purchases of goods, including luxury items.

Motor vehicle and parts purchases surged 6.7 per cent last month, the biggest rise since October, after dropping 1.9 per cent in February.

Excluding motor vehicles and parts, retail sales rose 0.6 per cent in March after rising 1.0 per cent the prior month as a combination of an early Easter holiday and warm weather boosted receipts at clothing stores. Economists had expected a 0.5 per cent gain.

Core retail sales, which exclude autos, gasoline and building materials, rose 0.5 per cent after increasing 1.2 per cent February. Core sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of the government's gross domestic product report.

The Federal Reserve has pledged to keep its benchmark interest rate unusually low for an extended period to nurture the recovery. Even as spending gathers momentum, there are no signs of inflation picking up.

Core consumer prices, which exclude volatile food and energy prices were unchanged in March after rising 0.1 per cent in February, the Labor Department said. Economists polled by Reuters had expected a 0.1 per cent rise in core CPI.

"There's no inflation in the economy because we have still a lot of slack in the work force and wages are not going up materially. Retailers cannot pass on higher costs to consumers," said Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at The Economic Outlook Group in Princeton, New Jersey.

Clothing and clothing accessories sales increased 2.3 per cent, while building materials and garden equipment climbed 3.1 per cent - the largest advance since November 2007.

Receipts at sporting goods, hobby and book stores rose 1.0 percent in March. Sales at electronics and appliance stores, however, fell 1.3 per cent and receipts at gasoline stations slipped 0.4 per cent.