After two months of weak gains, a rebound in automobile purchases helped retail sales to a strong 0.9 percent increase last month as the Christmas selling season got going, the Commerce Department reported yesterday.

Sales were also strong at building supply and furniture stores, and those selling general merchandise and apparel.

In a separate report, the Labor Department said consumer prices rose 0.1 percent last month while the core portion of the consumer price index, which excludes volatile food and energy prices, increased 0.2 percent.

Over the past 12 months, the core CPI rose 2.1 percent and the overall index was up 2.6 percent. The difference was due primarily to a 10.5 percent year-over-year increase in energy costs, which constitute about 7 percent of the CPI.

In a third economic report released yesterday, Commerce said the United States had a record $89.9 billion deficit in its international transactions in the third quarter.

Most of the shortfall was due to a deficit in trade in goods partially offset by a surplus in services trade. In addition, foreign investors earned $4.9 billion more in income on their assets in this country than American investors did on their holdings abroad. Finally, there was also a deficit of $11.2 billion in "unilateral transfers," which include money sent by immigrants back to their home countries.

Ray Stone of Stone & McCarthy Research Associates, a financial markets research firm, said the large retail sales increase indicates that consumer spending in the final three months of the year is rising about as fast as it did in the July-September period, when the economy grew at a 5.5 percent annual rate.

"There is no change in the underlying momentum of consumer spending," said Stone, who now expects fourth-quarter growth to match that of the previous three months.

Maury N. Harris, chief economist at PaineWebber Inc. in New York, took a less bullish view of the implications of the jump in consumer spending. He noted the average monthly change over the past three months was a moderate 0.4 percent and his firm's research suggests that the housing-related components, such as home furnishings and appliances, should soon start to weaken because home sales have been declining since June.

Auto sales increased 2.4 percent last month after declines of 1.1 percent in October and 1.7 percent in September. Clothing and accessory sales rose 0.8 percent, and building-material sales were up 0.9 percent.

Some analysts have wondered whether the Census Bureau, which is responsible for the figures, might understate actual sales this season by failing to pick up the rapid increase in purchases made over the Internet. But bureau officials said that the sample of retail sales outlets on which the numbers are based is regularly updated and that online sales should show up in the figures.

For one thing, companies in the sample are asked to report all their sales, whether at a store, by mail order or through a Web site, so Internet sales by a traditional retailer would be included if the firm is in the sample.

Furthermore, retail sales this month may approach $310 billion, while the online sales portion for November and December combined may be no more than $6 billion, according to Jupiter Communications Co.

Federal Reserve officials, who will meet next Tuesday in a policymaking session, probably won't be pleased by the continued strength in consumer spending. The officials have raised their target for short-term interest rates in three quarter-percentage-point steps since midyear in hopes of slowing the nation's rapid economic growth and keeping inflation under control.

In Fed parlance, those moves have been "preemptive" because there is little sign of any acceleration in core inflation, as the new CPI report highlights. Almost all financial analysts expect the Fed to leave rates unchanged next week.

CAPTION: Still Robust (This graphic was not available)