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Retail sales disappoint in June. Is the payroll tax pinch finally here?

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Patrick Semansky/AP/File

(Read caption) Baltimore's Harbor East shopping district is reflected in a retail store's window display in April. Retail sales increased but missed expectations in June, with some analysts suggesting that US consumers finally may be feeling the pinch of January's tax hikes.

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June’s retail sales report was a mixed bag, with one key category shining, one taking a huge step backward, and missed expectations in between.

Retail sales rose 0.4 percent last month, short of the 0.8 percent rise analysts expected. May’s gains were also revised downward, from a 0.6 percent gain to a 0.5 percent gain. June was the third month in a row for retail sales growth.

The gains were largely driven by a stellar month for auto sales, which grew 1.8 percent (after increasing by 1.4 percent in May). Gas prices also played a role – gasoline sales were up 0.7 percent, “likely reflecting the effect of higher prices,” Barclays Research economist Peter Newland wrote in an e-mailed analysis.

Otherwise, the data was a bit of a downer. Core sales, a figure that excludes autos, gas, and building materials to align most closely with routine consumer spending, inched up 0.1 percent. Some economists suggest that this could mean the expiration of the payroll tax cut in back in January is finally having an effect on shoppers’ wallets. “The components of the report provided evidence of a household sector responding with some delay to the hike in tax rates at the start of the year,” Newland wrote. “For example, department store sales declined for the fifth consecutive month in June [by 1 percent], and restaurant sales were down 0.6 percent in May and a further 1.2 percent in June.”

Building materials, meanwhile, dropped by 2.2 percent despite a spate of strong data from the housing market over the past few months (including good numbers for pickup trucks, which tend to correlate with construction activity). It was the category’s weakest reading in over a year.

Time will tell whether the decline is a blip in the housing recovery or one sign of a further slowdown. The National Association of Home Builders' (NAHB) Housing Market Index’s latest read of homebuilder confidence comes out Tuesday, and June housing starts come out Wednesday. Last month, the NAHB reported a shortage of key building materials including lumber, suggesting that such shortages may be holding back the market from growing more quickly.

But things aren’t all gloomy: June marked the third positive month in a row for retail sales, and coupled with a better than expected June jobs report, it’s still (slow) progress.

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“Our forecast for some time has been that real consumer spending growth will remain on roughly a 2% trend, and we see no compelling reason to alter this,” HIS Global Insight economist Joshua Shapiro wrote in an e-mailed analysis. “Today’s retail sales report, which was disappointing relative to market expectations, is, however, consistent with the slow-growth consumer spending environment that we are forecasting.”

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