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Surprise climb in US retail sales halts 6-month decline

SALES at United States retailers unexpectedly halted a record six-month slide last month, reflecting higher gasoline prices and more spending on items such as clothing and food.

The 1-percent increase followed a revised 3-percent drop the prior month, the Commerce Department said in a report yesterday in Washington. Purchases, excluding automobiles, gained 0.9 percent.

Consumer spending, about 70 percent of the economy, is likely to resume shrinking as the year progresses, according to a separate monthly Bloomberg News survey, capping the longest slide on record. Lawmakers are aiming to shore up the economy with a US$789-billion stimulus package that's designed to create 3.5 million new jobs.

"Gasoline prices firmed up over the months, and so did sales at gasoline stations," Ellen Zentner, a senior US economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd in New York, said before the report. Overall, "consumer spending is on the skids."

Stock-index futures pared their decline and Treasuries dropped. Contracts on the Standard & Poor's 500 Stock Index lost 0.4 percent at 8:40am in New York after dropping as much as 1.3 percent earlier. Yields on benchmark 10-year notes were at 2.78 percent, compared with 2.75 percent late Wednesday.

Retail sales were projected to fall 0.8 percent after an initially reported 2.7-percent drop the prior month, according to the median estimate of 72 economists in a Bloomberg survey. Forecasts ranged from a fall of 2.2 percent to a 0.7-percent gain.

Sales, excluding automobiles, were forecast to dip 0.4 percent from the prior month, according to the survey median.

The figures aren't adjusted for inflation, so price increases can influence the data. The average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline last month rose by 10 cents to US$1.78 a gallon, according to American Automobile Association.

Receipts at filling stations rose 2.6 percent last month, the first gain in six months, following a 16-percent decline in December.

The report showed sales at automobile dealerships and parts stores rose 1.6 percent, the first gain since August, after dropping 2 percent.

Still, demand for automobiles has softened as banks tighten lending and consumers hunker down. Sales plunged 55 percent at Chrysler LLC and sank 49 percent at General Motors Corp last month.


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