WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. retail sales unexpectedly fell in August and industrial output recorded its biggest drop since 2009 as Hurricane Harvey disrupted activity, suggesting the storm could dent economic growth in the third quarter.
The storm, which lashed Texas in the last week of August, also has impacted the labor market. Economists, however, expect a rebound in the fourth quarter.
“Hurricane Harvey’s fingerprints were all over the August retail sales and industrial production reports this morning,” said Scott Anderson, chief economist at Bank of the West in San Francisco. The Commerce Department said retail sales dropped 0.2 percent last month, the biggest decline in six months. While Harvey weighed on sales in August, data for July and June were revised down.
Economists had forecast retail sales nudging up 0.1 percent.
Motor vehicle sales tumbled 1.6 percent last month, the biggest drop since January, after being unchanged in July. Harvey, which unleashed unprecedented flooding in Houston, probably cut into sales of automobiles.
Auto sales are, however, expected to get a boost from the replacement of flood-damaged vehicles. Overall retail sales increased 3.2 percent in August on a year-on-year basis, pointing to underlying strength in domestic demand.
The Commerce Department said while it could not isolate the impact of Harvey on retail sales, it had received indications from companies that the hurricane had “both positive and negative effects on their sales data while others indicated they were not impacted at all.” Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and foodservices, retail sales fell 0.2 percent last month after anunrevised 0.6 percent increase in July. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product. Last month’s drop suggested consumer spending could slow in the third quarter.
In a separate report on Friday, the Federal Reserve said industrial production declined 0.9 percent in August. That was the biggest drop since May 2009 and followed six straight monthly gains.
The Fed attributed about 0.75 percentage point of the decline to storm effects that “temporarily curtailed drilling, servicing, and extraction activity for oil and natural gas.”
U.S. stocks were largely flat in morning trading while prices of U.S. Treasuries were weaker. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies.
The weak retail sales and industrial output reports will probably do little to change expectations that the Federal Reserve will announce a plan to start shrinking its $4.2 trillion portfolio of Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities at its Sept. 19-20 policy meeting.
The U.S. central bank is expected to raise interest rates again only in December. It has increased borrowing costs twice this year. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, increased at a 3.3 percent annualizedrate in the second quarter. That boosted GDP growth to a 3.0percent rate in the April-June period. Despite sluggish wage growth, even as the labor market nears full employment, the fundamentals for consumer spending are solid. The stock market is near record highs and house prices have maintained their advance, increasing household wealth.
Last month, sales at building material stores fell 0.5 percent after surging 0.9 percent in July. Clean-up efforts in the aftermath of Harvey as well as Hurricane Irma, which struck Florida last weekend, could buoy sales of building materials in September.
Receipts at service stations increased 2.5 percent in August, reflecting higher gasoline prices. Sales at electronics and appliance stores fell 0.7 percent and receipts at clothing stores dropped 1.0 percent after rising 0.5 percent in July. Department store retailers are struggling with fallingtraffic in shopping malls and increased competitionfrom Amazon.com and other online retailers. Sales at online retailers declined 1.1 percent in August, the biggest drop since April 2014. Receipts at restaurants and bars rose 0.3 percent and sales at sporting goods and hobby stores edged up 0.1 percent.
Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Additional reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao