(Bloomberg News) Retail sales in the U.S. rose in February by the most in five months, reflecting broad-based gains that indicate the world's largest economy is picking up even as gasoline costs climb.
The 1.1 percent advance matched the median forecast of 81 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News and followed a 0.6 percent increase in January that was larger than previously estimated, Commerce Department figures showed today in Washington. Demand improved in 11 of 13 categories, including auto dealers and clothing stores.
Sales at chains like Gap Inc. and Target Corp. last month beat analysts' estimates, a sign an improving job market is bolstering consumer spending, the biggest part of the economy. A pickup in payrolls may not be enough to satisfy Federal Reserve officials, who today will probably reaffirm a commitment to keep interest rates low.
Consumers are "unfazed by higher gas prices," said Jonathan Basile, an economist at Credit Suisse in New York, who correctly forecast the increase in spending. "This is a pleasant surprise on the overall picture for the economy. For the Fed, it's steady as she goes. They will be encouraged, but there is still a long way to go."
Stocks and bond yields rose after the report. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index climbed 0.5 percent to 1,378.1 at 9:44 a.m. in New York. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note increased to 2.07 percent from 2.03 percent late yesterday.
Sales increased 1.6 percent at automobile dealers, reversing a decrease the prior month, today's report showed. The results fell short of industry figures that showed an even bigger gain.
Cars last month sold at the fastest pace in four years, led by Chrysler Group LLC and a surprise gain from General Motors Co. Light-vehicle sales accelerated to a 15 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."Excluding Autos
Purchases excluding autos increased 0.9 percent, exceeding the median forecast of economists surveyed that projected a 0.7 percent gain.
The retail sales data, which aren't adjusted for inflation, reflected a 3.3 percent jump in receipts at service stations, the biggest gain in almost a year, as gasoline costs climbed. Regular 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 advanced further this month, reaching $3.80 on March 11, the highest since May.
Purchases at clothing stores rose 1.8 percent, the most since November 2010. Furniture and general merchandise stores were the only categories to show a decrease in demand.
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. Unseasonably warm weather may have helped to spur demand for spring merchandise.
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.
Employment and income gains are giving consumers the confidence they need to spend more. The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index rose to an almost four-year high in the week ended March 4.
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, the Labor Department reported on March 9. The jobless rate held at a three-year low of 8.3 percent.
Worker pay jumped in the last six months of 2011 by the most in almost five years, helping households squirrel away some extra cash. Americans saved 4.5 percent of their after-tax income in the fourth quarter, up from a prior estimate of 3.7 percent, according to Commerce Department data.
Analysts at Barclays Capital, led by chief U.S. economist Dean Maki, a former Fed researcher who specialized in consumer spending, project Americans will boost their purchases at a 3 percent annual rate in the second half of the year after raising them at a 2.5 percent pace in the first six months.
Investors have driven up retailers' shares as the job market heals. The Standard & Poor's Supercomposite Retailing Index, which includes Gap and Macy's Inc., has climbed 15 percent this year through yesterday. The index rose 0.3 percent at 9:47 a.m. today to 607.07.
Excluding autos, gasoline and building materials, which are the figures used to calculate gross domestic product, sales rose 0.5 percent in February after a 1 percent increase in the previous month.
Fed policy makers may reiterate a plan to keep interest rates low at least through late 2014 after meeting later today. 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.
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.