Economy

US retail sales stumble as inflation bites

Retail sales dropped 0.3% in May, US Commerce Department data shows.

people walking in a grocery store

People shop in a supermarket as inflation affected consumer prices in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., June 10, 2022. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. retail sales unexpectedly fell in May as motor vehicle purchases declined amid rampant shortages, and record high gasoline prices pulled spending away from other goods.

The first drop in sales in five months reported by the Commerce Department on Wednesday also suggested that high inflation was starting to hurt demand. It followed in the wake of major retailers like Walmart and Target cutting their profit forecasts because of cost pressures.

Still, the weak retail sales will not divert the Federal Reserve from its aggressive monetary policy tightening path to bring inflation back to its 2% target. The U.S. central bank is expected to raise its policy interest rate later on Wednesday for a third time this year, with an increase of 3/4 of a percentage point seen as likely.

"While high personal savings and strong job and wage growth help, consumers are facing stiff headwinds from four-decade high inflation, rapidly rising borrowing costs, and the bear market in equities," said Sal Guatieri, a senior economist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

"The Fed will need to see a sustained period of weakness in domestic demand and likely labor markets before breathing a sigh of relief on the inflation front."

Retail sales dropped 0.3% last month. Data for April was revised lower to show sales increasing 0.7% instead of 0.9% as previously reported. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales gaining 0.2%, with estimates ranging from as low as a 1.1% decline to as high as a 0.5% increase.

Retail sales are mostly goods, and are not adjusted for inflation. Sales rose 8.1% on a year-on-year basis and are well above their pre-pandemic trends, supported by massive savings and rising wages from a tight labor market.

The decline in monthly retail sales was led by receipts at auto dealerships, which dropped 3.5%, the largest fall in nearly a year, after increasing 1.8% in April. China's zero COVID-19 policy has exacerbated a global semiconductor shortage.

Online store sales fell 1.0%. There were declines in sales at electronics and appliance retailers as well as furniture stores. But sales at building material, garden equipment and supplies stores gained 0.2%. Receipts at sporting goods, hobby, musical instrument and book stores increased 0.4%. Clothing store sales edged up 0.1%.

Sales at services stations surged 4.0%, driven by record high gasoline prices. The national average price of gasoline jumped to an all-time high of $4.439 per gallon in May, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Prices at the pump are now about $5 per gallon.

Excluding gasoline, retail sales dropped 0.7%. Food and beverage stores sales increased 1.2%. The National Retail Federation said the weak sales underscored the need for the White House to repeal tariffs on Chinese goods.

"Retail sales are reflecting Americans' growing concern about inflation," NRF president Matthew Shay said. "Retailers are doing what they can to keep prices down, but we continue our call on the administration to repeal unnecessary and costly tariffs on goods from China to relieve pressure on consumers."

The economy's waning fortunes were also highlighted by a separate report from the New York Fed showing manufacturing activity in New York state remained weak in June, with order backlogs declining for the first time in over a year.

Confidence among single-family homebuilders dropped to a two-year low this month, a third report showed.

Stocks on Wall Street were higher. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

Services back in vogue

The decline in retail sales also reflected a gradual rotation of spending from goods to services. Receipts at bars and restaurants, the only services category in the retail sales report, increased 0.7% last month.

"It's possible consumers reached a saturation point for goods spending and are now shifting towards higher leisure spending heading into the summer months," said Will Compernolle, a senior economist at FHN Financial in New York.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales were unchanged in May. Data for April was revised down to show these so-called core retail sales increasing 0.5% instead of 1.0% as previously reported.

Core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product. While consumers are spending more on services, May's weak retail sales and the downward revisions to April data suggested consumption was slowing in the second quarter. Retail sales account for about a third of consumer spending.

JPMorgan slashed its second-quarter GDP estimate to a 2.5%annualized rate from a 3.25% pace. The economy contracted at a 1.5% rate in the first quarter. Citigroup, however, cautioned that retail sales were likely overstating the degree of slowdown in consumption.

"Total consumption data released at the end of the month will likely continue to show that some of the slowing in goods spending reflects a shift back towards services spending," said Veronica Clark, an economist at Citigroup in New York.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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