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US retail sales unexpectedly fall in February

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US retail sales unexpectedly fell in February, the latest sign economic growth has shifted into low gear as stimulus from US$1.5 trillion in tax cuts and increased government spending fades.

[WASHINGTON] US retail sales unexpectedly fell in February, the latest sign economic growth has shifted into low gear as stimulus from US$1.5 trillion in tax cuts and increased government spending fades.

The Commerce Department said on Monday retail sales dropped 0.2 per cent as households cut back on purchases of furniture, clothing, food and electronics and appliances, as well as building materials and gardening equipment. Data for January was revised higher to show retail sales increasing 0.7 per cent instead of gaining 0.2 perĀ  cent as previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales rising 0.3 per cent in February. Retail sales in February advanced 2.2 per cent from a year ago.

The surprise drop in sales in February could partly reflect delays in processing tax refunds in the middle of the month. Tax refunds have also been smaller on average compared to prior years following the revamping of the tax code in January 2018. Cold and wet weather could also have hurt sales.

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The February retail sales report was delayed by a 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government that ended on Jan 25. March's retail sales report, which was scheduled for publication on April 16, will be released on April 18.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales fell 0.2 per cent in February after an upwardly revised 1.7 per cent surge in January. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

They were previously reported to have rebounded 1.1 per cent in January. Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of economic activity.

The sharp upward revision to core retail sales in January was insufficient to reverse December's plunge, leaving expectations for tepid GDP growth in the first quarter intact. The report joined a raft of other data, including housing starts and manufacturing production.

Growth estimates for the January-March quarter are as low as a 0.8 per cent annualized rate. The economy grew at a 2.2 per cent rate in the fourth quarter after expanding at a 3.4 percent clip in the July-September period.

The loss of momentum is being driven by the waning fiscal boost, higher interest rates, as well as slowing global growth, Washington's trade war with China and uncertainty over Britain's departure from the European Union.

In February, sales at building materials and garden equipment and supplies dealers tumbled 4.4 per cent, the biggest drop since April 2012. Receipts at clothing stores fell 0.4 per cent and those at furniture outlets dropped 0.5 per cent.

Sales at food and beverage stores declined 1.2 per cent, the biggest drop since February 2009. Receipts at electronics and appliances stores fell 1.3 per cent, the largest decline since May 2017.

But consumers bought more motor vehicles and spent more at service stations, likely reflecting higher gasoline prices.

Online and mail-order retail sales rose 0.9 per cent. Sales at restaurants and bars edged up 0.1 per cent and spending at hobby, musical instrument and book stores increased 0.5 per cent.

REUTERS