U.S. retail sales rose in September as Americans bought more cars and gasoline, while a gauge of consumer spending pointed to stronger-than-expected economic growth in the third quarter.
Reuters reported that retail sales increased 1.1%, the Commerce Department said on Monday (Oct. 15), beating expectations after an upwardly revised 1.2% rise in August.
Retail sales outside of autos, gasoline and building materials — a barometer of consumer spending known as core retail sales — rose 0.9% last month.
That was well above the 0.3% gain expected by analysts in a Reuters poll, and suggests consumers did more to drive economic growth in the July-September period than economists had expected.
Consumer spending drives about two-thirds of the U.S. economy.
Sluggish demand and a punishing drought restricted the economy to a 1.3 percent annual growth pace in the April-June period. Before the retail sales report was released, economists were expecting growth to accelerate to a 1.6% pace in the third quarter, according to a Reuters poll.
The details of the report showed broad strength across retailers, with sales of motor vehicles and parts up 1.3%. Receipts at gasoline stations rose 2.5%, reflecting an increase in prices paid at the pump.
Other categories were also strong, with sales at electronics retailers up 4.5%, while sales at food and beverage stores rose 1.2%.
The Federal Reserve said today that the U.S. economy was expanding “modestly” last month, supported by improvements in housing and auto sales, even as the labor market showed little change.
“Consumer spending was generally reported to be flat to up slightly since the last report,” the Fed said in its Beige Book business survey, which is based on accounts from the 12 district Fed banks. Conditions in manufacturing were “somewhat improved,” according to the report, which provides anecdotal evidence on the health of the economy two weeks before the Federal Open Market Committee meets in Washington on Oct. 23-24.
Bloomberg reported that the Beige Book provides support for Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke’s view that economic growth isn’t strong enough to bring about a quick healing of the labor market. A Labor Department report last week showed that while the unemployment rate unexpectedly declined in September, payroll growth slowed.
The Fed on Sept. 13 announced a third round of quantitative easing, with purchases of $40 billion a month of mortgage debt, and said its benchmark interest rate was likely to stay low through the middle of 2015.
The report’s description of the economy is not as positive as Beige Books earlier in the year, which used the word “moderate” to describe the pace of expansion, said Dana Saporta, U.S. economist at Credit Suisse Group AG in New York. “In Fed parlance, modest is a step down from moderate,” she said.
Confidence among U.S. consumers fell in August by the most in 10 months as households grew more pessimistic about their employment prospects and the economic outlook.
Bloomberg reported that the Conference Board’s index decreased to 60.6 from a revised 65.4 in July, figures from the New York-based private research group showed today. The 4.8-point decrease was the biggest since October. The reading was less than the most- pessimistic forecast in a Bloomberg survey in which the median projection was 66.
Rising gasoline prices, a jobless rate that’s been above 8% since the start of 2009 and limited income gains are keeping consumers glum. Persistent pessimism raises the risk of a pullback in household purchases that account for about 70% of the world’s biggest economy.
“The consumer is still very cautious,” said Jim O’Sullivan, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics Ltd. in Valhalla, New York, who projected a drop in sentiment. “The labor market is still relatively weak. There’s a lot of uncertainty about policy ahead of the election” and fuel costs have accelerated, he said.
This month’s confidence reading was the lowest since November. Estimates for the Conference Board gauge ranged from 61 to 68 in the Bloomberg survey of 77 economists. The measure averaged 53.7 during the 18-month recession that ended in June 2009.
The Federal Reserve has room to deliver additional monetary stimulus to boost the U.S. economy, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told a Congressional oversight panel in a letter.
“There is scope for further action by the Federal Reserve to ease financial conditions and strengthen the recovery,” Bernanke wrote to the committee’s chairman, Representative Darrell Issa, in a letter obtained by Reuters on Friday (Aug. 24).
Bernanke at the end of next week will give a closely watched speech at an annual symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyo., which will be closely watched for clues into the prospect of further bond-buying from the Fed.
Asked if it was too soon to consider new monetary easing steps when the Fed’s Operation Twist program aimed at lowering long-term bond yields was still in effect, Bernanke said policymakers must invariably look beyond the immediate term.
“Because monetary policy actions operate with a lag, the stance of policy must necessarily be set in light of a forecast of future performance of the economy,” Bernanke said.
Fed officials sharply revised down their forecasts for U.S. economic growth in June, and another potential round of downward revisions could come at its September meeting.
U.S. gross domestic product expanded at an annual rate of 1.5% in the second quarter, a level seen too weak to lead to a sustained decline in unemployment, which rose to 8.3% in July.
In response to the financial crisis and recession of 2008-2009, the Fed cut rates to effectively zero and bought some $2.3 trillion in mortgage and Treasury bonds to put downward pressure on long-term borrowing costs.
Growth in the manufacturing sector picked up in August, a sign the economy is resisting the global economic chill although a rise in new jobless claims last week pointed to a still-sluggish labor market.
Reuter’s repored that financial information firm Markit said on Thursday (Aug. 23) its “flash” index for U.S. manufacturing edged up a half point to 51.9 in August. A reading above 50 indicates expansion.
That was still some of the weakest growth in the factory sector in the last three years, reinforcing the view that U.S. economic growth will pick up in the second half of the year but remain lackluster.
“The U.S. economy is slowly turning the corner,” said Robbert Van Batenburg, head of global research at Louis Capital Markets in New York.
The reading, based on a survey of purchasing managers, beat expectations and rose despite sluggish overseas demand for American goods.
Still, the modest improvement was not enough to dissuade investors’ bets on more monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve. U.S. government debt prices rose, although stocks slumped on Wall Street amid signs of further weakness in the global economy.
Many economists think the Fed could unveil a new bond buying program to prop up economic growth as soon as its next meeting Sept. 12-13, although an improvement in hiring this month could make that less likely.
The data on initial jobless claims suggested employers remain cautious about adding staff.
The Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 4,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 372,000.
“Jobless claims continue to indicate … a sluggish labor market,” said Peter Cardillo, an economist at Rockwell Global Capital in New York. “The numbers also strengthen the hand of the Fed to aid the economy with more stimulus.”
However, Cardillo and other economists said the slow pace of healing in the labor market doesn’t necessarily point to immediate action by the Fed.
The Federal Reserve is likely to deliver another round of monetary stimulus “fairly soon” unless the economy improves considerably, minutes from the central bank’s August meeting show.
Reuters reported that while the meeting was held before a recent improvement in the economic data, including a stronger-than-expected July reading for U.S. employment, policymakers were pretty categorical about their dissatisfaction with the current outlook.
“Many members judged that additional monetary accommodation would likely be warranted fairly soon unless incoming information pointed to a substantial and sustainable strengthening in the pace of the economic recovery,” the Fed said in minutes to its July 31-Aug. 1 meeting.
Fed officials saw significant risks to an already weak U.S. economy, which grew at a sluggish 1.5% annual rate in the second quarter. The risks include a worsening of Europe’s financial strains and the looming U.S. budget cuts and tax hikes, which have become commonly known as a fiscal cliff.
Many Fed officials supported extending the central bank’s guidance for the likely timing of an eventual interest rate hike, currently set at late 2014, further into the future. But they decided to defer the decision to the Fed’s September 12-13 meeting, when the central bank will release a new round of economic forecasts.
You may be paying more than ever for a late-summer drive.
U.S. drivers are paying an average of $3.72 per gallon today (Aug. 20), The Associated Press reported. That’s the highest price ever on this date, according to auto club AAA, a shade above the $3.717 average on Aug. 20, 2008. A year ago, the average was $3.578.
More daily highs are likely over the next few weeks. The national average could increase to $3.75 per gallon by Labor Day, said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service. By comparison, gas prices stayed below $3.70 in late August and early September in both 2008 and 2011. Kloza and other analysts expect prices to start dropping after Labor Day, barring a hurricane or other unforeseen event.
Retail gasoline prices have risen nearly 12% since July 1 because of higher oil prices, and problems with refineries and pipelines that created temporary supply shortages in some regions. An increase in the price of ethanol, which is blended into gasoline, also contributed to the rise in pump prices.
The pace of the increases has slowed considerably, however. Gas rose 19 cents in the two weeks ended Wednesday. It’s up just 1 penny in the five days since. Gas costs about 26 cents more than a month ago and 14 cents more than a year ago, according to AAA, OPIS and Wright Express.
A few drivers are catching a break. Retail prices were lower than this date in 2011 in four states — Montana, Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, said Kloza.
Gasoline prices are up sharply in the past month on surging crude oil costs and refinery woes, and now are likely to make 2012 the costliest year ever at the pump.
USA Today reported that nationally, gasoline averages $3.71 a gallon — up 31 cents since mid-July and is now higher than year-ago levels in 39 states. Prices are likely to continue climbing through August, with little relief until after Labor Day.
The swift, month-long, 9% price climb has lifted 2012′s average to $3.61 a gallon, vs. 2011′s $3.51, which had been the most expensive year ever for motorists. Even with demand expected to recede after the peak summer driving season, 2012 will surpass last year’s price, says Brian Milne of energy tracker Telvent DTN .
The run-up comes at a time when prices typically have peaked for the year, and just weeks after decreasing demand and slowing worldwide economic growth pushed prices well off 2012 highs. The trend had prompted some industry experts to forecast $3 a gallon gasoline by autumn. Now, Milne expects a top at about $3.90 before dropping in September.
Motorists in the Midwest are already paying that much, or more. Fallout from production cuts at four Illinois refineries has pushed prices in Illinois and Michigan to $4 or higher, while West Coast prices rocketed 40 cents a gallon following the Aug. 6 fire at a Northern California Chevron refinery. (A lawsuit was filed in Contra Costa County Superior Court Wednesday on behalf of nine nearby residents, alleging Chevron was negligent in refinery maintenance. The company says its reviewing the lawsuit.
Crude oil prices continue to rise. Since bottoming at about $78 a barrel in late June, benchmark West Texas Intermediate has soared more than 20%. In mid-day Thursday trading, crude was priced above $95 a barrel, a three-month high.
Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West, says if prices continue to rise, they could crimp a rebound in consumer spending. The Commerce Department reported Tuesday that July consumer spending rose 0.8%, the largest gain in five months.
Like summer temperatures, gasoline prices show few signs of cooling off.
According to a report by USA Today, after dipping to $3.33 a gallon and flirting with $3 in the South, the nation’s average gas price climbed 17 cents over 26 consecutive days in July. It was the first monthly gain since March and the biggest July jump since at least 2000, AAA said Tuesday (July 31).
Nationally, regular gasoline now averages $3.50 a gallon, although it’s pricier in 25 states.
“More and more locations say prices are above where they were last year — and last year was the most expensive for motor fuel,” says Oil Price Information Service analyst Tom Kloza. Gas averaged $3.71 a gallon in July 2011.
The Midwest is particularly pinched. Refinery woes in Indiana and Illinois have crimped output, propelling prices to as high as $4.29 a gallon in Chicago and to near $4 levels in several regions of the Rust Belt.
“It’s been pretty lousy,” says Patrick DeHaan, senior energy analyst for price tracker gasbuddy.com. “In some states, there’s been a 40- to 50-cent increase.”
Hawaii has the nation’s highest average gas price at $4.15 a gallon, followed by Alaska at $4 and Connecticut at $3.82.
The three states with the lowest prices are in the South: South Carolina at $3.20, Mississippi at $3.24 and Alabama at $3.25. State taxes, which can tack on up to 42 cents a gallon, explain part of the difference.
Nationally, prices have climbed in tandem with crude oil. Although benchmark West Texas crude lost 2% Tuesday, it was up about 3% for July — the first monthly gain since April. Much of that came on speculation that Europe’s debt crisis would finally be resolved and hope that the Federal Reserve would launch new measures to stimulate the U.S. economy, DeHaan says.
August prices are likely to climb to a national average of about $3.60 before pulling back after Labor Day, says Kloza, who still expects gas to slip to $3 a gallon by November as seasonal demand slips.
Consumer spending in the U.S. stagnated in June as labor-market weakness prompted Americans to use the biggest gain in incomes in three months to build savings.
Bloomberg reported that household purchases, which make up 70% of the economy, were unchanged last month after a 0.1% decline in May, a Commerce Department report showed today in Washington.
The median estimate in a Bloomberg News survey of economists called for a 0.1% rise. Incomes climbed 0.5%, lifting the saving rate to 4.4%, the highest in a year.
Americans may be growing less pessimistic about job prospects later in the year, with another report today (July 31)showing consumer confidence rose unexpectedly for the first time in five months. Federal Reserve policy makers meeting today and tomorrow may wait for more employment data before deciding whether action is needed to boost an economy that’s slowed for two straight quarters.
“There’s been some back-tracking in the labor market so consumers are choosing to save the income rather than spend it,” said Julia Coronado, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas in New York, who correctly projected the stagnation in purchases. “The third quarter will be pretty subdued.”