WASHINGTON - Consumer spending picked up slightly last month on rebounding automobile purchases while inflationary pressures remained subdued, according to separate government reports issued yesterday.
The Commerce Department said retail sales in June increased 0.5%, the third straight monthly rise following gains of 0.4% in May and 0.3% in April.
Most of the increased business by retailers came in automobile showrooms, where dealers reported that sales surged 1.7% after a solid increase of 1.0% in May. Excluding automobiles, sales activity remained sluggish and rose just 0.1% after gains of 0.2% in May and April.
Analysts said the weak pace of sales outside the auto sector, which account for the bulk of retail business, portrayed a lackluster economy at best. Some said there was little evidence of economic momentum as consumers continue to worry about job security and high debt levels.
"The retail sales data paint a picture of a pretty anemic consumer." said Stephen Roach, senior economist for Morgan Stanley & Co. "We're not getting any noticeable pickup in spending as we move into the summer, and that puts a damper on the ability of the economy to stage a more meaningful recovery at any point in the near term."
Mr. Roach added, "Consumers are feeling the heat from the job losses in the restructuring of corporate America, and as long as they have job and income concerns they are going to keep their budgets constrained to a bare minimum."
Fred Sturm, senior economist with Fuji Securities Inc. in Chicago, agreed. "The hero that is moving the numbers right now is obviously auto sales," he said, but added that, adjusted for inflation, non-auto sales of the last three months probably fell.
"If this recovery is going to transform itself into a sustainable expansion, consumer spending clearly will have to speed up, and we don't see that happening," said Mr. Sturm. "Clearly the Federal Reserve is taking its cue from consumer expenditures, and if spending doesn't show some kind of convincing pickup, the Fed is going to have to reduce the federal funds rate again, and possibly the discount rate."
According to the Commerce Department, the rise in auto sales helped fuel a 0.7% increase in consumer purchases of durable goods in June. Furniture sales advanced 0.4%, erasing most of the 0.5% drop in May.
Sales in other areas were mixed. Sales of building materials tumbled 2.8%, reflecting the softness in the construction industry since the building boom early in the year. Sales at general merchandise stores, restaurants, and drugstores also fell.
But sales at clothing stores jumped 1.8% following an increase of 1.4% in May, and gasoline sales apparently got a boost from higher prices.
"Consumers are not borrowing from the future to buy today," said David Orr, chief economist for First Union National Bank in Charlotte, N.C. "They're buying based on what they're earning, and that has the effect of slowing down the growth rate in consumption."
A separate report from the Labor Department yesterday says average weekly earnings in June adjusted for inflation were down 1% compared to a year earlier.
The department also reported that the consumer price index in June rose a modest 0.3%, which was in line with market expectations and produced an increase of 3.1% in prices compared to a year earlier. Excluding food and energy, prices were up 3.8% for the year.
Inflation in the prices of services outside the energy sector has moderated considerably, rising at an annual rate of only 1.6% in the second quarter compared to 4.2% last year, Mr. Sturm said. "Consumer price inflation is likely to remain subdued for some time to come."