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U.S. Retail Sales Unexpectedly Show Steep Drop In December

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Retail sales in the U.S. unexpectedly showed a significant decrease in the month of December, according to government shutdown-delayed data released by the Commerce Department on Thursday.

The Commerce Department said retail sales tumbled by 1.2 percent in December after inching up by a revised 0.1 percent in November.

Economists had expected retail sales to rise by 0.2 percent, matching the uptick originally reported for the previous month.

The unexpected slump in retail sales came despite a notable increase in sales by motor vehicles and parts dealers, which surged up by 1.0 percent in December after climbing by 0.7 percent in November.

Excluding the jump in auto sales, retail sales plunged by an even steeper 1.8 percent in December after coming in unchanged in November. Ex-auto sales had been expected to edge up by 0.1 percent.

Sales by gas stations helped lead the way lower amid a drop in gasoline prices, plummeting by 5.1 percent in December following a 4.4 percent nosedive in November.

Underlying sales figures were also troubling, however, as closely watched core retail sales, which exclude autos, gasoline, building materials and food services, tumbled by 1.7 percent in December after an upwardly revised 1.0 percent jump in November.

Sales by sporting good, hobby, music and book stores, miscellaneous store retailers, non-store retailers, and department stores all showed substantial decreases during the month.

"It's possible the monthly swings are due to seasonal adjustment problems, but there is no hiding that there was a definite tailing off of momentum at the end of 2018," said Michael Pearce, Senior U.S. Economist at Capital Economics.

The Commerce Department said the annual rate of retail sales growth slowed dramatically to 2.3 percent in December from 4.1 percent in November.

The annual rate of ex-auto sales growth also slowed to 2.0 percent in December from 4.7 percent in the previous month.

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