WASHINGTON -- Doubts about the strength of the recovery cropped up again yesterday after the Commerce Department reported that retail sales faded during the spring.
A separate report from the Labor Department showed the producer price index in May increased 0.4%, the biggest monthly rise in more than a year and a half. But analysts said the statistics were heavily influenced by increases in tobacco prices.
Retail sales in May rose a scant 0.2%, to a seasonally adjusted $ 158.8 billion, largely on gains in automobiles and other durable goods, according to the Commerce Department figures. Excluding autos, sales were unchanged as clothing stores and food stores reported less business. Moreover, revisions to the statistics for April showed retail sales were up only 0.4%, less than half the 0.9% increase reported in May.
Some economists said the latest batch of numbers highlights the problem Federal Reserve officials face in trying to stimulate a sluggish economy when price pressures seem to be threatening again. Excluding food and energy, the producer price index was up 0.6%, the biggest increase in the core rate of inflation since January 1991.
"It was simply the worst combination of what you'd want to see at the Federal Reserve, or within the administration, for that matter," said James Annable, chief economist for the First National Bank of Chicago. "We're not getting any final demand in the second quarter."
"This really does raise a big question mark about an economic recovery going on in the second half of the year," Mr. Annable added. "And it raises the ghost of what happened in the spring of 1991, when the recovery stalled out."
Last year, consumer spending tailed off during the summer, and so did the recovery. This year, Bush administration officials have expressed concern that the same thing could happen and have urged Fed officials to make sure the money supply does not dry up again and jeopardize growth.
Fed officials are widely believed, however, to be in favor of a neutral policy on rates now. Federal Reserve Board Governor John LaWare said Wednesday that some Fed officials oppose any further cuts in rates and do not believe they can do more to stimulate consumer demand.
In a speech last night to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Federal Reserve Board Governor Susan Phillips said, "I expect the economic data increasingly to shift in a more favorable direction as the year progresses."
Ms. Phillips acknowledged that retail sales in May were flat, but incomes and consumer confidence have been rising, she said, "which suggests the likelihood of a revival of the uptrend in household spending some time soon."
Other analysts said they are sticking to their belief that a modest economic recovery without much of a rise in inflation is under way. Given this outlook, they said, it is unlikely that Fed officials will budge from their apparently neutral stance on rates.
"The bond market blew off the 0.6% rise in the core rate," said Sally Kleinman, vice president and money market economist for Chemical Securities Inc. "What we're getting from these figures is a sluggish economy with little inflation. That's just what the Fed wants."
Donald Fine, chief market analyst for Chemical Securities Inc., said, "Inflation is subdued and nonthreatening, and this is on the high side of the trend. Retail sales were soft, there's no question about it, but the economy is growing slowly and sustainably."