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Retail Sales Likely Rose on Autos, Fuel

Retail sales in the U.S. probably rose in February by the most in five months, spurred by the strongest demand for automobiles since 2008, economists said before reports this week.

The 1.1 percent rise would follow a 0.4 percent gain in January, according to the median forecast of 67 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News ahead of Commerce Department figures due March 13. Industrial production picked up in February, while inflation excluding food and energy remained in check.

Sales at retailers like Gap Inc. (GPS) and Target Corp. (TGT) last month beat analysts’ estimates, a sign an improving job market is helping bolster consumer spending, the biggest part of the economy. A pickup in payrolls, accompanied by limited wage growth, may not be enough to satisfy Federal Reserve officials, who this week will probably reaffirm their commitment to keeping interest rates low through 2014.

“Retail sales could be pretty strong for February,” said Omair Sharif, an economist at RBS Securities LLC in Stamford, Connecticut. “The better job growth numbers are helping. Fed policy makers are going to sit back and take stock” rather than make any new moves.

Employers boosted payrolls more than forecast in February, capping the best six-month streak of job growth since 2006. The 227,000 increase followed a revised 284,000 gain in January that was bigger than first estimated, a Labor Department report showed on March 9. The jobless rate held at a three-year low of 8.3 percent.

Auto Sales

Cars last month sold at the fastest pace in four years, led by Chrysler Group LLC and a surprise gain from General Motors Co. (GM) Light-vehicle sales accelerated to a 15 (SAARTOTL) million annual rate, the strongest since February 2008, according to Ward’s Automotive Group.

“There are a number of factors that are helping release this pent-up demand,” Don Johnson, vice president of GM’s U.S. sales, said on a March 1 conference call with analysts. “They include stronger employment, good credit availability, and both of those are leading to improving consumer sentiment.”

The retail sales data, which aren’t adjusted for prices, will also reflect increasing gasoline costs. Regular (3AGSREG) fuel in February averaged $3.56 a gallon, or 18 cents more than January, according to AAA, the nation’s biggest auto organization. It’s climbed further this month, reaching $3.77 on March 4, the highest since June.

Gap, the largest U.S. apparel chain, and Target, the country’s second-largest discount retailer, were among merchants whose February sales gains at stores open at least a year exceeded analysts’ average estimates. Warm weather may have helped to spur demand for spring merchandise.

Warmer February

The average temperature was 38.2 degrees Fahrenheit (3.4 Celsius) last month, 3.6 degrees warmer than the 20th century average and the 17th warmest February in 118 years.

The results at store chains are in sync with a pickup in shoppers’ moods. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan preliminary index of consumer sentiment rose to a one-year high in March, economists in the Bloomberg survey projected ahead of the March 16 report.

Investors have driven up retailers' shares as the job market heals. The Standard & Poor’s Supercomposite Retailing Index (S15RETL), which includes Gap and Macy’s Inc., has climbed 14 percent so far this year, compared with a 9 percent advance for the broader S&P 500. (SPX)

Fed policy makers, meeting on March 13, may reiterate a plan to keep interest rates low at least through late 2014. Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, in his semiannual monetary policy report to Congress, said maintaining monetary stimulus is warranted even with employment gains and a lower jobless rate.

Bernanke on Jobs

While there are “some positive developments in the labor market,” Bernanke told lawmakers on March 1, “the pace of expansion has been uneven.” The rise in gasoline prices “is likely to push up inflation temporarily while reducing consumers’ purchasing power,” he said.

The recent increase in oil and fuel costs will be reflected in last month’s price gauges from the Labor Department. The consumer price index, the broadest of the three measures, climbed 0.4 percent, the most since April, economists in the Bloomberg survey predicted. The report is slated for March 16.

Manufacturing continues to bolster the economic expansion, a Fed report may show the same day. Industrial output at factories, mines and utilities climbed 0.4 percent in February after being little changed, according to the Bloomberg survey median.

Growth at factories extended into this month, gauges of manufacturing in the New York and Philadelphia regions may also show on March 15, economists said.

                         Bloomberg Survey

================================================================
                        Release    Period    Prior     Median
Indicator                 Date               Value    Forecast
================================================================
Retail Sales MOM%         3/13      Feb.      0.4%      1.1%
Retail ex-autos MOM%      3/13      Feb.      0.7%      0.7%
Retail exauto/gas MOM%    3/13      Feb.      0.6%      0.4%
Business Inv. MOM%        3/13      Jan.      0.4%      0.5%
Import Prices MOM%        3/14      Feb.      0.3%      0.6%
Import Prices YOY%        3/14      Feb.      7.1%      6.0%
Empire Manu. Index        3/15     March      19.5      17.5
PPI  MOM%                 3/15      Feb.      0.1%      0.5%
Core PPI MOM%             3/15      Feb.      0.4%      0.2%
PPI  YOY%                 3/15      Feb.      4.1%      3.3%
Core PPI YOY%             3/15      Feb.      3.0%      2.9%
Initial Claims ,000’s     3/15     10-Mar     362       355
Cont. Claims ,000’s       3/15     3-Mar      3416      3405
Philly Fed Index          3/15     March      10.2      12.0
CPI  MOM%                 3/16      Feb.      0.2%      0.4%
Core CPI MOM%             3/16      Feb.      0.2%      0.2%
CPI  YOY%                 3/16      Feb.      2.9%      2.9%
Core CPI YOY%             3/16      Feb.      2.3%      2.2%
Ind. Prod. MOM%           3/16      Feb.      0.0%      0.4%
Cap. Util. %              3/16      Feb.     78.5%     78.8%
U of Mich Conf. Index     3/16    March P     75.3      75.6
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To contact the reporter on this story: Shobhana Chandra in Washington at schandra1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Christopher Wellisz at cwellisz@bloomberg.net

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