U.S. businesses stockpiled goods in September at the fastest pace in six months, led by food and department stores, the Commerce Department said Monday.

Inventories rose 0.4%, in line with analysts' expectations, to $1.123 trillion, after an unrevised 0.3% increase in August. Business sales decreased 0.2%, to $842.3 billion in September, after a gain of 1.2% in August, according to the government.

Analysts said it is likely that industries are building stockpiles to meet rising export demand and to anticipate computer problems that might come when Jan. 1, 2000, arrives.

"This reading should be interpreted as an indication that businesses will attempt to build inventories in coming months, especially for Y2K purposes, and this will be a source of fourth-quarter growth," Ray Stone, managing director of Stone & McCarthy Research Associates in Princeton, N.J., said in a report.

The September inventory figure could add another 0.5 percentage point to third-quarter gross domestic product growth, said Stephen Slifer and Ethan Harris, economists at Lehman Brothers in New York, in a forecast report. The GDP grew at a 4.8% annual rate in the third quarter, which ended Sept. 30, the Commerce Department reported previously.

A separate survey released this month showed that manufacturers are also trying to rebuild inventories. An October survey by the National Association of Purchasing Managers showed that its index of inventory levels rose to 51.1, from 43.2 the month earlier, suggesting that more businesses had rebuilt their stockpiles. It was the first time in nearly 11 years that the index has risen above 50.

Retail inventories rose 0.3% in September after rising 0.7 in August, as food and department stores built up stockpiles. Wholesale inventories increased 0.7% after rising 0.5% in August. Manufacturing inventories increased 0.2% after falling 0.1%.

Business sales decreased 0.2% in September, after rising 1.2% in August. -- Bloomberg News

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