WASHINGTON — Retail sales rose more than expected in October due largely to a big rebound in auto sales. But broader consumer spending remains under pressure, raising questions about the durability of the recovery.
Last month’s jump in sales also followed a dismal September retail performance that was revised even lower by the government, and many analysts remain concerned about consumer demand going forward.
“Against a background of high unemployment, low income growth and tight credit, it seems unlikely that households will be able to spend more freely anytime soon,” Paul Dales, U.S. economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a research note.
The Commerce Department said Monday that retail sales rose 1.4 percent last month. Economists surveyed by Thomson Reuters had expected a gain of 1 percent.
On Wall Street, major stock indexes rose more than 1 percent in afternoon trading. The Dow Jones industrial average added more than 145 points.
Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said the central bank will keep a close eye on the sliding U.S. dollar even as he pledged anew to keep interest rates at record-lows. Economists expect the Fed will hold rates near zero at its next meeting on Dec. 15-16 and into part of next year to help the recovery gain traction.
In remarks to the Economic Club of New York, Bernanke predicted the economy should continue to grow next year, but he warned of “important headwinds,” including a weak job market and tight credit for small businesses and households.
Those forces “likely will prevent the expansion from being as robust as we would hope,” he said.
Excluding auto sales, retail demand rose 0.2 percent, half of the expected 0.4 percent rise. The government also revised the September results down to a 2.3 percent decline, from the 1.5 percent drop initially reported.
The big swing in overall activity reflects the recent roller-coaster ride for auto sales. New car sales surged in August as shoppers rushed to take advantage of the government’s Cash for Clunkers sales incentives before they expired at the end of the month. Sales plunged in September.
For October, auto sales jumped 7.4 percent, recouping about half of the 14.3 percent drop in September. Automakers already reported that their sales rebounded last month to an annual rate of 10.5 million units, from 9.2 million in September.
The 0.2 percent increase in retail sales excluding autos was down from a 0.4 percent rise in September and was the weakest showing since July.
Sales also fell 0.8 percent at furniture stores and 0.6 percent at electronics and appliance stores. Sales were flat at gasoline service stations and posted a modest 0.2 percent rise at grocery stores.
Department store sales also grew 0.3 percent although the broader category that includes such big retail chains as Wal-Mart and Target posted a 0.8 percent rise. Analysts believe that in the current hard times many shoppers are relying more heavily on discount stores.
Consumer spending, which accounts for 70 percent of total economic activity, is being closely watched to see whether households will continue helping the economy to emerge from the worst recession since the 1930s.
The overall economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, grew at an annual rate of 3.5 percent in the July-September quarter, due largely to a rebound in consumer spending. It grew at a solid rate of 3.4 percent in the quarter, after having declined in three of the previous four quarters.
The concern is that spending will sag in the current quarter and going forward as effects of the government’s stimulus programs begin to wane and families continue to struggle with unemployment at a 26-year high of 10.2 percent and other problems.
Bernanke said the unemployment rate “likely will decline only slowly” if economic growth remains “moderate” as he expects.
Because jobs are likely to remain scarce for some time, consumers will be cautious about spending, he said.
Many economists believe there is the threat of a double-dip recession in which growth rebounds for a few quarters and then slips back.
The Reuters/Michigan survey of consumer sentiment declined sharply in early November to a reading of 66 after rising above 70 in September and October. Attitudes about the short-term economic outlook collapsed to the lowest level since April and consumers’ assessments about the state of their personal finances also deteriorated sharply.
Banks dealing with the fallout from soured commercial real estate loans could slow progress on efforts to get credit flowing more freely again, Bernanke said. And credit difficulties will limit the ability of some businesses to expand and hire.
“Overall a number of factors suggest that employment gains may be modest during the early stages of the expansion,” Bernanke said.
For October, the nation’s big retail chains reported some of their best results since April 2008. Sales open at least a year rose 2.1 percent in October compared with activity in October 2008, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers-Goldman Sachs. That result beat economists expectations for a 1 percent rise.
Affluent shoppers, who had been tight with their purse strings since the financial meltdown struck a year ago, spent more for designer clothes, helping deliver solid gains for Saks Inc. and Nordstrom Inc.
Other bright spots were Costco Wholesale Corp., TJX Cos., which operates T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, and Gap Inc.
Many stores were helped by cooler weather which increased sales of fall clothing. Sales also got a boost from early holiday discounts offered by some retail chains.
Also Monday, the Commerce Department said businesses slashed inventories for a 13th consecutive month in September although the pace slowed from the previous month.
Businesses reduced inventories 0.4 percent in September, slightly better than the 0.7 percent drop economists expected and much improved from a 1.6 percent decline in August. Sales also fell, the first setback since May.
Still, businesses soon may begin restocking depleted store shelves after more than a year of cuts. If that occurs, factory production will begin to rise on a sustained basis, helping to bolster a broad recovery.