Higher Gasoline Prices Restrain U.S. Retail Sales in April

WASHINGTON (Reuters) —
A motorist filling up with gasoline. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

U.S. retail sales increased moderately in April as rising gasoline prices cut into discretionary spending, but consumer spending appeared on track to accelerate after slowing sharply in the first quarter.

The Commerce Department said on Tuesday that retail sales rose 0.3 percent last month after surging 0.8 percent in March. Last month’s increase in retail sales was in line with economists’ expectations.

Retail sales in April increased 4.7 percent from a year ago.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales rose 0.4 percent last month after increasing 0.5 percent increase in March. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

The U.S. dollar rose to a fresh five-day high against a basket of currencies after the data. Yields on U.S. Treasuries were trading higher and U.S. stock index futures were trading lower.

Consumer spending braked sharply in the first quarter, growing at its slowest pace in nearly five years, amid delays in processing tax refunds. Economists also say clean-up efforts in the wake of back-to-back hurricanes in late 2017 had pulled forward spending into the fourth quarter.

While consumer spending is picking up, the rise could be limited by gasoline prices, which have risen about 31 cents per gallon this year. The gasoline-price rise, if sustained, could blunt the impact of lower income taxes on consumer spending.

Gasoline prices are near $3.00 per gallon, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. With crude oil prices rising after President Donald Trump’s decision last week to pull the United States out of an international nuclear deal with Iran and vow to put tough sanctions on Tehran, gasoline prices are likely to remain elevated.

Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, grew at a pedestrian 1.1 percent annualized rate in the first quarter. The economy expanded at a 2.3 percent pace in the January-March period.

In April, auto sales edged up 0.1 percent after accelerating 2.1 percent in March. Receipts at service stations jumped 0.8 percent, reflecting higher gasoline prices, following a 0.3 percent gain in March.

Sales at restaurants and bars fell 0.3 percent, the largest drop since February 2017. Americans also cut back on spending on hobbies. Receipts at sporting goods and hobby stores dipped 0.1 percent last month, matching March’s drop.

Consumers also pulled back spending on personal grooming, with sales at health- and personal-care stores falling 0.4 percent last month.

But sales at furniture stores rose 0.8 percent after surging 1.4 percent in March. Receipts at building material stores rose 0.4 percent last month. Sales at clothing stores shot up 1.4 percent, the biggest increase since March 2017, while sales at online retailers increased 0.6 percent.

Receipts at electronics and appliance stores slipped 0.1 percent.

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