By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON -- U.S. consumer spending fell in April for the first time in almost a year and inflation pressures were subdued, pointing to a slowdown in economic activity, which should allow the Federal Reserve to maintain its monetary stimulus for a while.
The Commerce Department said Friday consumer spending fell 0.2 percent, the weakest reading since May last year, after edging up 0.1 percent in March. Economists had expected a 0.1 percent gain.
Consumer spending, which accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity, was held down by weak demand for utilities and a drop in receipts at gasoline stations on the back of a fall in gasoline prices at the pump.
When adjusted for inflation, spending nudged up 0.1 percent last month after rising 0.2 percent. The sixth straight month of gains in the so-called real consumer spending came as a key inflation gauge fell in April by the most since July last year, pushed down by declining gasoline prices.
That modest rise suggested that consumer spending would slow in the second quarter after accelerating at a 3.4 percent annual pace in the first three months of the year.
"Consumer spending is on a very modest track because income is not growing very much. Wage gain is very low even though job growth has picked up," said Kevin Logan, chief U.S. economist at HSBC Securities in New York.
U.S. Treasuries prices extended gains after the data, while stock index futures were lower in morning trade.
The economy has been hit by higher taxes and deep government spending cuts as the government tries to slash its budget deficit.
It grew at a 2.4 percent pace in the January-March period, but is expected to slow to a rate of between 1.5 percent and 2.2 percent this quarter because of the government budget cuts, which are already putting a strain on manufacturing.
Lack of income growth as job gains remain moderate is weighing on domestic demand. Last month, income was flat and the saving rate was unchanged at 2.5 percent.
The weak demand tone was underscored by very benign inflation pressures in April.
A price index for consumer spending fell 0.3 percent last month after dipping 0.1 percent in March. A core reading that strips out food and energy costs was flat after rising 0.1 percent the prior month.
During the past 12 months, inflation has risen just 0.7 percent, the smallest gain since October 2009 and pushing further below the Federal Reserve's 2 percent target. The index had increased 1.0 percent in the period through March.
Core prices were up 1.1 percent, the smallest rise since March 2011 and slowing from 1.2 percent in March.
The weak spending and the lack of inflation pressures should dampen market speculation the U.S. central bank might start scaling back monetary easing later this year.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said last week a decision to start tapering the $85 billion in bonds the Fed is buying each month could come at one of its "next few meetings" if the economy appeared set to maintain momentum.
"Certainly, the inflation data suggest the Fed at the moment should not be overly concerned about inflation," Logan said. "That gives them plenty of scope to continue QE."