U.S. consumers continue to increase spending, according to a batch of economic data released Tuesday that reflect a slow economic recovery.
Retail sales jumped in July, unhampered by an increase in fuel prices, according to government data. Small-business owners are also more upbeat, according to a National Federation of Independent Business report.
“The data are very clear; they show that economic conditions are improving,” said Jamie Cox, managing partner of the Richmond-based Harris Financial Group.
The data helped provide a boost to the markets. All of the major indexes rose slightly, despite a traditionally low volume of August trading. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index rose 0.3 percent, closing at 1694.16 after rebounding from a loss earlier in the day.
Retail sales increased 0.2 percent in July, rising for the fourth consecutive month, according to the Commerce Department. That was slightly lower than some analysts had expected, but excluding the volatile auto, gas and building supply categories, retail sales rose 0.5 percent — the biggest gain in six months.
Sales at department stores rose at their fastest rate since 2012, 0.6 percent in July, rebounding from a 1.2 percent drop in June.
The data show that “consumers remain on the game” and “feel better about the economy,” said Jim Dunigan, managing executive of investments for PNC Wealth Management.
The retail sales data “are consistent with the trend of moderate growth near-term,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James.
The solid reading on retail sales continues a spurt of data that have pointed to a steady economic recovery but not the kind of rapid acceleration that the world has been waiting for. It has been just enough to keep financial markets on track while not prompting fears of growth so fast that the Federal Reserve would move abruptly to discontinue its easy-money policies.
A top Fed official said Tuesday that the economic picture is not clear enough for the central bank to detail its exit plan for its stimulus efforts. “One feature of the data in hand that contributes to a lack of clarity is the fact that employment gains have been strong enough to lower the unemployment rate while GDP growth has remained lackluster,” Dennis Lockhart, president of the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank, told the Kiwanis Club of Atlanta.
The economic recovery has been “a mixed bag” for consumers, analysts said. Consumers have benefited from an improving employment market, but have yet to see wages rise significantly. It remains difficult for some consumers to get a loan, but rising home prices are making homeowners feel more wealthy.
The data “does show that the consumer continues to spend, but that growth is less than anticipated,” said Sam Stovall, chief equity strategist at S&P Capital IQ.
But consumers are beginning to be squeezed by rising fuel prices.
Import prices rose 0.2 percent in July, driven by rising fuel prices, which rose 2.5 percent, according to a U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. Import prices had declined in each of the previous four months.
The rise in prices for imported goods has not been enough to hamper consumer spending, indicating an underlying strength in the economy, analysts said.
Other data released Tuesday also support the picture of a slow but steady economic recovery. Business inventory levels were unchanged in June, while sales to businesses rose modestly, 0.2 percent, according to Commerce Department data. That means that companies may soon need to restock their inventory levels, providing another boost to the economy, analysts said.
Still, some economists are concerned that automatic spending cuts included in the sequester could hamper economic growth this year and also affect corporate profits.
“We reduced our earnings expectations, mainly because we think that the sequestration will continue to put pressure on economic growth,” Stovall said.