Benefits cut slows US retail sales

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    WASHINGTON- US consumer spending slowed in August, with a key retail sales gauge unexpectedly declining, as extended unemployment benefits were cut for millions of Americans, offering more evidence that the economic recovery from the COVID-19 recession was faltering.

    The report from the Commerce Department ramped up pressure on the White House and Congress to restart stalled negotiations for another fiscal package. At least 29.6 million people are on unemployment benefits. Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of the US economy.

    The Federal Reserve on Wednesday kept interest rates near zero, noting that the pandemic “will continue to weigh on economic activity” in the near term, “and poses considerable risks to the economic outlook over the medium term.”

    Fed Chair Jerome Powell told reporters more fiscal support is likely to be needed.

    “Consumers are being increasingly cautious with their spending,” said Gregory Daco, chief US economist at Oxford Economics in New York. “If Congress is unable to extend fiscal aid to households in the coming weeks, the economy will be particularly susceptible to a cutback in consumer spending, especially from the lowest-income families.”

    Retail sales excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services dipped 0.1 percent last month after a downwardly revised 0.9 percent increase in July. These so-called core retail sales, which correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, were previously reported to have advanced 1.4 percent in July.

    Economists polled by Reuters had forecast core retail sales rising 0.5 percent in August.

    Overall retail sales increased 0.6 percent in August, in part as sales at restaurants and bars continued to recover. Data for July was revised down to show retail sales increasing 0.9 percent instead of 1.2 percent as previously reported.

    Retail sales account for the goods component of consumer spending, with services such as healthcare, education, travel and hotel accommodation making up the other portion.

    Services have been hardest hit by the coronavirus, which plunged the economy into recession in February, and spending on services remains about 10 percent below the pre-pandemic level.

    US stocks were trading higher. The dollar was steady against a basket of currencies. US Treasury prices were lower.

    The retail sales report followed data this month suggesting the labor market was losing speed after astounding employment gains in May and June as businesses reopened after being shuttered in mid-March to control the spread of the coronavirus.

    Job growth slowed further in August and new applications for unemployment benefits remained perched at extraordinarily high levels in early September. At the same time, manufacturing is also showing signs of tiring, with output slowing last month.

    A $600 weekly unemployment subsidy expired in July. It was replaced by a $300 weekly supplement, which was not available in all states, and funds for the program are expected to run out this month. Economists estimated that the reduced unemployment benefits supplement cut income by about $70 billion in August.

    Government money was credited for the sharp turnaround in economic activity that started in May. Still, consumer spending is expected to rebound strongly in the third quarter because of robust momentum in core retail sales at the tail end of the April-June quarter.

    Consumer spending suffered a record collapse in the second quarter. The pullback in core retail sales in August, if sustained, would set up consumer spending on a slower growth path in the fourth quarter. Growth estimates for the third quarter top a 30 percent annualized rate. The economy contracted at a historic 31.7 percent pace in the April-June quarter.