Sunday, January 21, 2018
Business

Sifting economic data yields few clues on direction

Several reports released Wednesday painted a mixed picture of the U.S. economy. While the recent savage storm that hit the East Coast dented retail sales, hopeful signs could be seen in other data. Here is a summary:

Hurricane Sandy combined with cautious consumers to lower retail sales in October and raise concerns about weaker economic growth and a tepid holiday shopping season.

Retail sales dropped 0.3 percent last month after three months of gains, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Sales at auto dealers fell 1.5 percent, the most in more than a year. The storm depressed car sales in the Northeast at the end of the month, economists said.

Online and catalog purchases fell 1.8 percent, the most in a year. Widespread power outages prevented some online shopping.

The Federal Reserve sent a strong signal that it could announce a new bond-buying program in December to try to spur job growth.

Minutes of the Fed's Oct. 23-24 policy meeting suggest it may unveil a Treasury-buying plan to replace a program that expires at year's end. Under the existing program, called "Operation Twist," the Fed has been selling $45 billion a month in short-term Treasurys and using the proceeds to buy longer-term securities.

The minutes show support among the Fed's policymakers to replace Twist with another program of bond purchases.

Wholesale prices dipped 0.2 percent last month, the Labor Department said Wednesday. It was the first decline since May and followed big gains of 1.1 percent in September and 1.7 percent in August, increases that had been driven by spikes in energy.

Energy prices retreated a bit in October, dipping 0.5 percent, but food costs were up 0.4 percent as the summer drought continued to put pressure on some food prices.

Core prices, which exclude food and energy, fell 0.2 percent in October, the biggest drop in two years.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that U.S. businesses increased their inventories 0.7 percent in September. Retailers, manufacturers and wholesale distributors all boosted their stockpiles. Their sales rose 1.4 percent in September — the most in more than a year.

Companies typically increase their stockpiles when they anticipate sales will rise in coming months.

Faster restocking helps drive economic growth.

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