WASHINGTON – Retail sales rose in November and jobless claims fell sharply last week, hopeful signs for an economy that appears to have slowed sharply in the fourth quarter.
Retail sales rose 0.3 percent, rebounding from a 0.3 percent decline in October, the Commerce Department said on Thursday. Economists polled by Reuters had expected an increase of 0.5 percent last month.
The data puts consumer spending in a slightly brighter light considering growing fears the U.S. government will adopt harsh austerity measures in January, while new jobless claims fell to within a hair of their lowest since the economic recovery began and pointed to ongoing healing in the labor market.
"Consumers have recovered somewhat after October's drop in sales," said Joseph Trevisani, a market strategist at Worldwide Markets in Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey.
A separate measure of retail sales, which strips out automobiles, gasoline and building materials, rose a more healthy 0.5 percent. This core reading more closely follows the government's gauge of consumer spending, which is a major component of economic growth.
U.S. stock index futures rose after the data, while U.S. government debt prices extended declines.
Many economists think fears of imminent tax hikes and government spending cuts are hitting consumer confidence and leading businesses to hold back on investment. In early December, the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index plunged by the most since March 2011.
Congress and the White House appear deadlocked in talks aimed at slowing down draconian austerity measures scheduled for next year. Some $600 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts are slated to begin in January, a "fiscal cliff" that would likely trigger a recession.
U.S. economic growth is expected to slow sharply in the fourth quarter to a 1.2 percent annual rate, a Reuters poll showed on Wednesday, down from a 2.7 percent rate during the prior three months.
The rise in retail overall sales was tempered by a 4 percent decline in receipts at gasoline stations, the biggest drop since December 2008. That likely reflects a fall in gasoline prices during the month, which left consumers with more money to spend on other things.
The Labor Department said separately that U.S. wholesale prices dropped 0.8 percent in November as gasoline prices plunged 10.1 percent, their sharpest drop since March 2009.
The price report, which showed little inflation pressure building in the U.S. economy, gives the U.S. Federal Reserve room to continue with stimulus programs aimed at bringing down the unemployment rate.
The Fed announced a new round of monetary stimulus on Wednesday, taking the unprecedented step of indicating interest rates would remain near zero until unemployment falls to at least 6.5 percent.
Another report from the Labor Department showed the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell for a fourth straight week last week.
"The labor market might be improving a bit quicker than expected," said David Sloan, an economist at 4Cast in New York.��
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 29,000 to a seasonally adjusted 343,000, the Labor Department said on Thursday. The prior week's figure was revised to show 2,000 more applications than previously reported.
Last week's drop left new claims at their lowest since the week of October 6, and well below the levels just before superstorm Sandy. Claims are now near their lowest since February 2008.
The four-week moving average for new claims, seen as a better measure of labor market trends, dropped 27,000 to 381,500. That was the lowest level since the week of November 3.
Prior reports have shown Sandy knocked down industrial output in October and led to a big spike in claims for jobless benefits.
(Reporting by Jason Lange; Additional reporting by Chris Reese and Nick Olivari in New York; Editing by Neil Stempleman)