U.S. retail sales fell for the first time in seven months in October as motor vehicle purchases and spending on hobbies dropped, pointing to slowing demand at the start of the fourth quarter that further strengthened expectations the Federal Reserve is done hiking interest rates.
That was supported by other data on Wednesday showing the biggest decline in producer prices in 3 ½ years in October on the back of cheaper gasoline. The reports followed on the heels of news on Tuesday that consumer prices were unchanged last month for the first time in more than a year.
The data, combined with a cooling labour market, led economists to conclude that the U.S. central bank’s current rate hiking cycle was over. Still, there is no sign that the economy is sliding into recession. The drop in sales in October was less than expected and followed three straight months of hefty gains.
“Signs of moderating consumer demand and inflation argue for an extended Fed pause,” said Lydia Boussour, senior economist at EY-Parthenon in New York. “While we believe the Fed is done raising interest rates, the bar is still high for rate cuts.”
Retail sales slipped 0.1 per cent last month, the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau said. Data for September was revised higher to show sales increasing 0.9 per cent instead of the previously reported 0.7 per cent rise. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales would fall 0.3 per cent.
Retail sales are mostly goods and are not adjusted for inflation. Sales were mixed last month, with receipts at motor vehicles and parts dealers falling 1.1 per cent. Economists attributed some of the decrease to the recently ended United Auto Workers strike, which could have limited supply.
Furniture store sales dropped 2.0 per cent, while receipts at building material and garden equipment outlets slipped 0.3 per cent. There was a 1.7 per cent decline in sales at miscellaneous retailers. Sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument and book stores sales fell 0.8 per cent.
Clothing store sales were unchanged, while receipts at electronics and appliance outlets rose 0.6 per cent. Online sales rose 0.2 per cent, despite Amazon’s second Prime Day promotion.
Sales at food services and drinking places, the only services component in the report, gained 0.3 per cent. Economists view dining out as a key indicator of household finances.
Receipts also rose at health and personal care stores as well as food and beverage outlets. Though some of the dip in retail sales was payback after the recent streak of strong growth, it was also a sign that consumers are feeling the heat from higher borrowing costs, with most lower-income families relying on credit cards to fund purchases after exhausting excess savings accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Student loan repayments resumed for millions of Americans, but recent data from the Bank of America Institute showed no indication yet that the change was negatively impacting spending.
Target on Wednesday forecast a holiday-quarter profit largely above Wall Street expectations, but noted that consumers were delaying spending until the last minute, which chief executive officer Brian Cornell said was “a clear indication of the pressures they’re facing as they work to stretch their budgets until the next paycheck.”
Stocks on Wall Street extended Tuesday’s rally. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.
Financial markets are anticipating a rate cut next May, according to CME Group’s FedWatch Tool. Since March, 2022, the Fed has raised its benchmark overnight interest rate by 525 basis points to the current 5.25 per cent-5.50 per cent range.
Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales rose 0.2 per cent in October. Data for September was revised up to show these so-called core retail sales rising 0.7 per cent instead of the previously reported 0.6 per cent.
Core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of GDP. Economists expect inflation-adjusted consumer spending to grow at about a 2 per cent annualized rate this quarter, half the 4-per-cent pace logged in the third quarter.
The Atlanta Fed is forecasting GDP to rise at a 2.2 per cent rate, still above what Fed officials regard as the non-inflationary growth rate of around 1.8 per cent. Fourth-quarter growth is also likely to be supported by steady inventory investment. The economy accelerated at a 4.9 per cent rate in the July-September quarter.
A separate report from the Labour Department’s Bureau of Labour Statistics on Wednesday showed the producer price index for final demand declined 0.5 per cent in October, the largest decrease since April, 2020. The PPI rose 0.4 per cent in September.
Economists had forecast the PPI would edge up 0.1 per cent. In the 12 months through October, the PPI increased 1.3 per cent after rising 2.2 per cent in September.
Wholesale goods prices dropped 1.4 per cent, with a 15.3 plunge in gasoline accounting for more than 80 per cent of the decline. Goods prices rose 0.8 per cent in September.
The cost of services was unchanged after increasing 0.2 per cent in the prior month. There were increases in the costs of airfares, inpatient and outpatient care as well as transportation of freight by road. But portfolio management fees and prices for motel and hotel rooms fell.
Airfares and portfolio management fees are some of the components that go into the calculation of the personal consumption expenditures price indexes, the inflation measures tracked by the Fed for its 2 per cent target.
With the CPI and PPI data in hand, economists estimated that the core PCE price index increased 0.2 per cent in October after rising 0.3 per cent in September. That would lower the annual increase in the core PCE price index to 3.5 per cent, which would be the smallest gain since April, 2021, from 3.7 per cent in September.
“Fed officials are getting to keep their cake and eat it too, so far,” said Christopher Rupkey, chief economist at FWDBONDS in New York. “The economy is not too cold and not too hot. It is just right for now.”