Retail sales drop in April

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Retail sales fell for a second straight month in April, a disappointing performance that raised doubts about whether consumers were regaining their desire to shop. A rebound in consumer demand is a necessary ingredient for ending the recession.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that retail sales fell 0.4 percent last month. Many economists had expected a flat reading, and the April weakness followed a 1.3 percent drop in March that was worse than first estimated.

Retail sales had posted gains in January and February after falling for six straight months, raising hopes that the all-important consumer sector of the economy might be stabilizing. But the setbacks in March and April could darken some forecasts because consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity.

The hope had been that consumers were starting to feel better about spending, helped by the start of tax breaks included in the $787 billion stimulus bill. Households had spent the fall hunkered down in the face of thousands of job layoffs and the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.

Wall Street tumbled after the weaker-than-expected retail sales report. The Dow Jones industrial average lost about 185 points in afternoon trading, and broader indices also plunged.

The latest retail data “are yet another illustration that, although the worst is now over, there is still no evidence of an actual recovery,” Paul Dales, U.S. economist with Capital Economics in Toronto, wrote in a research note.

While anecdotal evidence suggests some improvement in sales in recent weeks, “to offset the plunge in wealth, the household saving rate still needs to double from the current rate of 4 percent,” Dales wrote. “With falling employment hitting incomes, this can only be achieved by a further retrenchment in spending.”

The jobless rate rose to 8.9 percent in April when a net total of 539,000 jobs were lost and 13.7 million people were unemployed, the Labor Department said last week.

In a separate report, the Commerce Department said business inventories fell 1 percent in March, a decline that matched economists’ expectations. It marked the seventh straight decrease, the longest stretch since businesses cut inventories for 15 straight months in 2001 and 2002, a period that covered the last recession.