Ahead Of The Bell: US Retail Sales

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ Americans likely spent less at auto dealers and gasoline stations in March, enough to lower overall retail sales for the month. But economists expect increases in most other categories, fresh evidence that higher taxes haven't kept consumers from spending more this year.

Economists forecast that retail sales dipped 0.1 percent last month from February, according to a survey by FactSet. That would be the first drop in five months. It would also be much lower than February's 1.1 percent gain â¿¿ the best in five months.

But excluding gas, autos and building materials, economists at JP Morgan Chase forecast that core retail sales rose 0.2 percent.

The Commerce Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EDT Friday. The retail sales report is the government's first look at consumer spending, which drives about 70 percent of economic activity.

An increase in Social Security taxes has lowered take-home pay this year for nearly all workers. Someone earning $50,000 has about $1,000 less to spend in 2013. A household with two high-paid workers has up to $4,500 less.

Most economists thought the tax increase would drag on spending at the beginning of this year. But they were encouraged after February's retail sales report showed such a large gain. Many boosted their forecasts for economic growth in the first quarter to a 3 percent annual rate or higher.

A sharp slowdown in hiring in March may have weighed on sales last month. Employers added only 88,000 jobs last month, much lower than the average gain of 220,000 in the previous four months. But hiring may pick up in the coming months. Weekly unemployment benefit applications fell sharply last week, suggesting that companies are cutting fewer jobs.

A private survey of 15 major retailers released Thursday showed that shoppers spent cautiously last month, held back by the coldest March in seven years. Still, sales at stores open for at least a year rose 1.6 percent in March, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

After a sharp run-up in February, gas prices fell last month. The retail sales report isn't adjusted for price changes, so that will likely translate into lower gas station sales. The cost of a gallon of gas averaged $3.56 nationwide Thursday, down from $3.70 a month earlier.

Auto sales, meanwhile, slowed slightly in March, to an annual pace of 15.3 million. That was down from 15.4 million in February.

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