February retail sales plunged 1.6%, while the ex-auto aggregate dropped 1.0%. The figures were much weaker than expected. The winter storm that blanketed the East Coast around mid-month, which already had wreaked havoc with unit vehicle sales and chain store sales, was clearly the big factor dampening sales on the month.
The vehicle and parts component fell 3.4%, although some of the weakness was offset by a big upward revision in January. The building materials component plummeted 7.5%, which suggests that other housing-related reports could also reveal a steep shortfall on the month. Clothing dropped 3.6%, while furniture was off 1.6%.
We at MMS International, however, would note that "core" sales were not that bad, with the ex-auto and building-materials aggregate falling only 0.2%. Helping to offset weakness elsewhere was a 2.7% gain in gasoline service stations and a 1.2% increase in general merchandise.
Also, January sales were revised sharply higher to a gain of 0.3% from a decline of 0.9% previously. Retail sales excluding autos were revised slightly lower to a gain of 1.2% from up 1.3%.
Overall, the key will be what kind of rebound we see over the next few months. MMS still believes underlying trends in consumption are respectable, helped by tax refunds and strong refinancing, so there is a good chance of a big offsetting rebound as soon as next month.
Jobless Claims Fall
Initial jobless claims fell 15,000 to 420,000 in the week ended Mar. 8. Despite the decline, this is the fourth straight week that the index has been above the 400,000 level. Moreover, the four-week moving average rose 10,000 to 419,750 from the week before, the highest level for the average since the turn of the year.
Continuing claims rose 14,000 to 3,496,000 in the week ended Mar. 1. The modest gain comes on the back of a huge increase in the previous week and leaves continuing benefits at the highest level since the week ended Nov. 16.
Import and Export Prices Rise
U.S. import prices rose 1.3% in February from an upwardly revised 1.6% in January, which were originally up 1.5%. Export prices rose 0.4% from an unrevised 0.4% in January.
As expected, the import price gains were led by an 8.2% jump in petroleum prices and a 4.7% gain in industrial supplies, and were likely bolstered by the sharp fall in the dollar over the period. From economic research outfit MMS International