March inventories climb as tame retail stocks feed growth jitters

Cases of Diageo Plc products sit in a distribution warehouse in Bolingbrook, Illinois.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

U.S. business inventories rose in March, but a slowdown in retail stocks excluding automobiles was the latest indication that the economy contracted in the first quarter.

The Commerce Department said on Tuesday inventories increased 0.4 in March after rising 0.5 percent in February. March's increase was in line with economists' expectations.

Inventories are a key component of gross domestic product changes. Retail inventories, excluding autos, which go into the calculation of GDP, nudged up 0.1 percent. That was far less than the 1.1 percent increase in non-auto retail sales that the government had assumed in its advance first-quarter GDP report.

The government reported last month that the economy grew at a 0.1 percent annual pace in the January-March period.

However, March trade, construction spending and factory inventory data, which the government did not have in hand when it made its GDP growth estimate, suggested the economy actually contracted in the first quarter.

Economists estimate first-quarter GDP will be revised later this month to show output fell at a pace of around 0.6 percent.

The economy was slammed by an unusually cold and disruptive winter, as well as an inventory overhang from the second half of 2013, which left businesses with little appetite to order more stock from manufacturers.

Growth, however, is expected to accelerate as the drag related to weather and inventories fades.

In March, business sales increased 1.0 percent after rising 0.9 percent in February. That was the largest gain since May 2013.

At March's sales pace, it would take 1.30 months for businesses to clear shelves. That was unchanged from February.

--By Reuters