Consumer spending got off to a fairly firm start in the third quarter, rising by the most in five months and offering hope economic growth could pick up this quarter. Other data on Thursday showed the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits was unchanged last week, indicating a lack of strong improvement in the labor market and keeping additional monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve on the table.
The Commerce Department said consumer spending increased 0.4 percent after a flat reading in June. Last month's rise in consumption, which accounts for 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, was in line with economists' expectations. When adjusted for inflation, consumer spending increased 0.4 percent, also the largest increase since February.
"The improvement in spending activity suggests that overall economic activity may be off to a fairly decent start in the third quarter," said Millan Mulraine, senior macro strategist at TD Securities in New York.
A second report from the Labor Department showed first-time applications for state unemployment benefits were unchanged at 374,000. The four-week moving average for new claims, a better measure of labor market trends, rose 1,500 to 370,250. Jobless claims have risen by 10,000 in August, suggesting some moderation in the pace of job growth this month after payrolls increased 163,000 in July from 64,000 in June.
Even though data on consumer spending and housing suggest that economic activity picked up early in the third quarter, the state of the labor market could determine whether the Fed offers additional monetary stimulus to the economy at its September 12-13 policy meeting.
The unemployment rate, which ticked up to 8.3 percent in July, has been stuck above 8 percent for more than three years, the first time this has happened since the Great Depression. In addition, business spending is weakening and inflation is slowing.
"Today's data ... are not strong enough to prevent the Fed from launching QE3 in mid-September," said Paul Dales, a senior economist at Capital Economics. U.S. stock index futures held onto earlier losses, while U.S. Treasury debt prices extended earlier gains. The dollar maintained its losses versus the euro and yen.
Consumer spending dipped 0.1 percent in June when adjusted for inflation and last month's increase was an encouraging sign after consumption growth slowed by the most in a year in the second quarter. Sluggish consumer spending held back economic growth to a 1.7 percent annual pace in the April-June period.
Real spending last month was lifted by subdued inflation pressures. A price index for personal spending was flat after edging up 0.1 percent in June. In the 12 months through July, the PCE price index rose 1.3 percent, the smallest increase since October 2009, after increasing 1.5 percent in June. A core measure that strips out food and energy costs was also flat for the first time since September after gaining 0.2 percent in June. In the 12 months to July, the core PCE price index increased 1.6 percent, the smallest rise since October, from 1.8 percent. The Fed aims for inflation of 2 percent.
Last month, households increased spending as income increased 0.3 percent after rising by the same margin in June. Income available to households after stripping out inflation and taxes increased 0.3 percent after gaining 0.2 percent in June. With spending a touch above income growth, the saving rate slipped to 4.2 percent in July from 4.3 percent the prior month.