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July 17, 2007 > Retail sales take sharp plunge

Retail sales take sharp plunge

By Martin Crutsinger, AP Economics Writer

WASHINGTON (AP), Jul 13 Consumers put away their wallets in June, sending retail sales plunging by the sharpest amount in nearly two years. Sales of autos, furniture and building supplies all fell, highlighting the economy's weak spots.

The 0.9 percent drop in retail sales was the biggest decline since August 2005, the Commerce Department reported Friday. It was a far bigger setback than the flat reading that had been forecast.

Part of the weakness was seen as payback for a surprise on the upside in May, when sales surged by 1.5 percent. But the June decline was also viewed as an indication that consumers are cutting back under a barrage of higher prices and a recession in the housing industry.

``Consumers are increasingly cautious in the face of higher gasoline and food prices and slowing home price gains,'' said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com.

Two gauges of consumer confidence gave conflicting signals Friday. The RBC Cash Index fell to its lowest point in nearly a year while the University of Michigan/Reuters survey rebounded to a six-month high, an increase attributed to a temporary retreat in gasoline prices in late June and early July.

Capping a week that began with worries about the strength of consumer demand, Wall Street rose again on Friday as investors discounted the big drop in retail sales, choosing to believe it was a temporary stumble that will not derail prospects for continued economic expansion.

Both the Dow Jones industrial average and the broader Standard & Poor's 500 index set closing records for a second straight day. The Dow climbed 45.52 points to close at 13,907.25, after surging by 283 points on Thursday, the biggest one-day point gain since October 2002.

The economy slowed to a dismal 0.7 percent growth rate in the first three months of this year, but is believed to have rebounded significantly in the just-completed April-June quarter to growth above 3 percent.

Analysts said, however, that the dip in June retail sales would provide a weaker starting point for the current quarter and they forecast that growth in the second half of this year would slip to around 2.5 percent as the slump in housing persists longer than expected, acting as a drag on consumer spending.

Housing, which has been hurt this year by spreading troubles in the subprime mortgage market, has seen sales decline and prices fall in many formerly red-hot markets, where sharp price appreciation over the past five years had boosted consumer spending by making consumers feel more wealthy and also allowing them to take out home equity loans to finance purchases.

``Consumers have been living beyond their means and they are now starting to slow down,'' said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poor's in New York.

A separate report Friday showed that another factor that was a significant drag on first quarter growth _ an effort by businesses to reduce unsold inventories _ seemed to be turning around. Business inventories grew by a better-than-expected 0.5 percent in May, a gain that analysts said would help support overall growth in the second quarter.

Economists believe that a rebound in inventory building, gains in U.S. exports and strength in commercial real estate all helped in the spring to offset the slowdown in consumer spending.

The 0.9 percent drop in June retail sales reflected a 2.9 percent fall in auto sales as Detroit continues to struggle with sluggish demand because of the surge in gasoline prices.

In a sign of the housing market weakness, sales at furniture stores were down 3 percent last month, the biggest setback since February 2003, and sales at hardware stores fell by 2.3 percent.

Sales at specialty clothing stores fell by 1.4 percent while department stores saw sales fall by 1 percent. A broader category that includes traditional department stores and big chains such as Wal-Mart posted an increase of 0.3 percent in June.

Sales at gasoline service stations dropped by 1.1 percent, a decline attributed to a temporary fall in gasoline prices at the end of the month.

Excluding the big decline in auto sales, retail sales still would have been weak, falling by 0.4 percent, the poorest showing in this category since last September.

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On the Net:

Retail sales: http://www.census.gov/retail




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