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story.lead_photo.caption FILE - In this June 3, 2019, file photo a shopping cart sits in the parking lot of a Target store in Marlborough, Mass. On Friday, June 14, the Commerce Department releases U.S. retail sales data for May. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes, File)

WASHINGTON -- Retail sales rose 0.5% in May, after a smaller gain of 0.3% in the previous month, as Americans stepped up their spending.

The Commerce Department report released Friday was a sign that recent worries about cautious consumers dragging on domestic growth may have been overdone, economists said.

"The consumer didn't fall by the wayside," David Berson, chief economist at Nationwide Financial, said. "The concerns that the economy is really slipping dangerously are overstated at this point."

The report suggests that American consumers are still spending at a healthy pace, even as the stimulus from tax cuts fades. In June, the economy reached its 10th year of expansion, tying the 1990s as the longest on record. Measures of consumer confidence, after stumbling this spring amid the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, have returned to nearly 19-year highs.

The figures also lessen pressure on the Federal Reserve to cut short-term interest rates. Other recent data, such as weak job growth in May and choppy consumer spending earlier this year, have led most economists to expect at least one or two cuts this year.

"Today's report was a bit of relief for the Fed. It takes out a sense of urgency for them to act," said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America Corp. "The trend in the last three months for consumer spending was quite solid following the first quarter where it was soft."

Retail sales had been uneven earlier this year, making it harder for economists to get a handle on consumer spending. But with April's revision -- the earlier estimate showed a decline -- sales have now increased for three straight months. And with the unemployment rate at a five-decade low of 3.6% and wage gains easily outpacing inflation, consumer spending will likely keep growing this year.

Sales at electronics stores jumped 1.1% and rose 0.7% at auto dealers. Sales in a category that mostly includes online retailers rose 1.4%, the most since January. That includes online shopping destinations such as Amazon.com Inc.

Gas-station receipts increased 0.3%, the report showed. The figures aren't adjusted for price changes, so the higher retail sales suggest increased demand as fuel prices fell. Consumer-price index data this week showed gasoline costs dropped 0.5% in May from the previous month.

The economy is forecast to slow in the April-June quarter, expanding at roughly a 2% annual pace or less, analysts say. That would be down from 3.2% in the first three months of this year.

Retail spending was healthy in many categories. Restaurants and bars reported that spending rose 0.7%, a good sign because such spending is more discretionary than purchases at grocery stores or gas stations. Sporting goods and hobby stores saw sales rise a strong 1.1%.

U.S. industrial production improved in May, but manufacturers showed weakness despite eking out a slight gain.

The Fed said Friday that industrial output, which includes factories, utilities and mines, rose 0.4% in May, after tumbling 0.4% in April.

Manufacturing output increased just 0.2% last month, not enough to overcome declines in previous months. Factory production is down 1.5% since the end of 2018, an indication of the potential damage from the import taxes President Donald Trump's administration has placed on China. During the first quarter of this year, motor vehicle production plunged 14.9%. Furniture output fell 5.8%. Clothing production has dropped 22.6%.

Factories' capacity utilization in May was 75.7%, down from 77.3% in December 2018. The lower utilization levels suggest that factories are seeing less demand than manufacturers had expected.

"Manufacturing is still struggling, but no meltdown," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

Shepherdson said he does not anticipate a repeat of the six-quarter manufacturing recession that occurred in 2015 and 2016, a decline that may have helped Trump win election. Still, Shepherdson noted that manufacturing will likely decline through the first half of the year, which could technically count as a mini-recession for the sector.

While manufacturing plays an outsized role in the stock market and politics, "a very mild recession in the sector doesn't necessarily say anything much about broader GDP growth," Shepherdson said.

Production at the nation's utilities rose 2.1%, caused by increased use of natural gas and electricity.

Production at mines, a sector that also covers oil and natural gas, advanced a modest 0.1%. Gains in oil and natural gas extraction were nearly offset by a decline in drilling.

Information for this article was contributed by Christopher S. Rugaber and Josh Boak of The Associated Press; and by Reade Pickert of Bloomberg News.

Business on 06/15/2019

Print Headline: Retail sales in U.S. up 0.5% last month

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