U.S. retail sales unexpectedly fall as economy slows

* Retail sales fall 0.2 percent in February

* Core retail sales drop 0.2 percent; January revised higher

* Business inventories rise 0.8 percent in January

* Construction spending increases 1.0 percent in February

WASHINGTON, April 1 (Reuters) - U.S. retail sales unexpectedly fell in February, the latest sign economic growth has shifted into low gear as stimulus from $1.5 trillion in tax cuts and increased government spending fades.

There was, however, some encouraging news on the economy. Other reports on Monday showed a pickup in manufacturing activity in March and the third straight monthly increase in construction spending in February. Still, the risks to economic growth in the first quarter remain tilted to the downside.

The loss of momentum also reflects higher interest rates, slowing global growth, Washington's trade war with China and uncertainty over Britain's departure from the European Union.

These factors contributed to the Federal Reserve's decision last month to abruptly end its three-year campaign to tighten monetary policy. The U.S. central bank abandoned projections for any interest rate hikes this year after increasing borrowing costs four times in 2018. 

RELATED: Take a look at the tax refund in every U.S. state:

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Average tax refund in every U.S. state
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Average tax refund in every U.S. state

Texas

Average refund: $3,206

Number of refunds: 10,087,693

Total income tax refunded: $32.3 billion

Louisiana

Average refund: $3,115

Number of refunds: 1,611,412

Total income tax refunded: $5 billion

Connecticut

Average refund: $3,099

Number of refunds: 1,396,609

Total income tax refunded: $4.3 billion

Oklahoma

Average refund: $3,098

Number of refunds: 1,300,577

Total income tax refunded: $4 billion

New York

Average refund: $3,059

Number of refunds: 7,712,210

Total income tax refunded: $23.6 billion

New Jersey

Average refund: $3,013

Number of refunds: 3,479,321

Total income tax refunded: $10.5 billion

Wyoming

Average refund: $2,989

Number of refunds: 214,649

Total income tax refunded: $641.6 million

North Dakota 

Average refund: $2,983

Number of refunds: 277,422

Total income tax refunded: $827.4 million

Florida

Average refund: $2,933

Number of refunds: 7,854,538

Total income tax refunded: $23 billion

Mississippi

Average refund: $2,922

Number of refunds: 1,018,429

Total income tax refunded: $2.97 billion

California

Average refund: $2,911

Number of refunds: 13,594,703

Total income tax refunded: $39.5 billion

Washington D.C.

Average refund: $2,900

Number of refunds: 277,399

Total income tax refunded: $804.5 million

Illinois

Average refund: $2,900

Number of refunds: 4,973,653

Total income tax refunded: $14.4 billion

Maryland

Average refund: $2,861

Number of refunds: 2,329,288

Total income tax refunded: $6.7 billion

Massachusetts

Average refund: $2,850

Number of refunds: 2,704,250

Total income tax refunded: $7.7 billion

Alaska

Average refund: $2,843

Number of refunds: 276,887

Total income tax refunded: $787 million

Nevada

Average refund: $2,830

Number of refunds: 1,111,952

Total income tax refunded: $3 billion

Georgia

Average refund: $2,832

Number of refunds: 3,606,774

Total income tax refunded: $10.2 billion

Alabama

Average refund: $2,802

Number of refunds: 1,650,125

Total income tax refunded: $4.6 billion

Virginia

Average refund: $2,771

Number of refunds: 3,129,030

Total income tax refunded: $8.7 billion

Arkansas

Average refund: $2,759

Number of refunds: 989,288

Total income tax refunded: $2.7 billion

Tennessee

Average refund: $2,726

Number of refunds: 2,465,816

Total income tax refunded: $6.7 billion

Utah

Average refund: $2,681

Number of refunds: 1,033,141

Total income tax refunded: $2.8 billion

Washington

Average refund: $2,681

Number of refunds: 2,749,362

Total income tax refunded: $7.4 billion

Arizona

Average refund: $2,672

Number of refunds: 2,244,925

Total income tax refunded: $6 billion

Kansas

Average refund: $2,665

Number of refunds: 1,044,275

Total income tax refunded: $2.8 billion

New Mexico 

Average refund: $2,657

Number of refunds: 724,549

Total income tax refunded: $1.9 billion

South Dakota

Average refund: $2,651

Number of refunds: 321,372

Total income tax refunded: $852 million

West Virginia

Average refund: $2,649

Number of refunds: 649,049

Total income tax refunded: $1.7 billion

Kentucky

Average refund: $2,648

Number of refunds: 1,590,274

Total income tax refunded: $4.2 billion

Delaware

Average refund: $2,648

Number of refunds: 365,749

Total income tax refunded: $968.4 million

Rhode Island

Average refund: $2,643

Number of refunds: 436,490

Total income tax refunded: $1.1 billion

Pennsylvania

Average refund: $2,643

Number of refunds: 5,071,264

Total income tax refunded: $13.4 billion

Colorado

Average refund: $2,636

Number of refunds: 2,014,233

Total income tax refunded: $5.3 billion

North Carolina

Average refund: $2,629

Number of refunds: 3,580,471

Total income tax refunded: $9.4 billion

Nebraska

Average refund: $2,615

Number of refunds: 711,103

Total income tax refunded: $1.8 billion

Indiana

Average refund: $2,612

Number of refunds: 2,577,994

Total income tax refunded: $6.7 billion

Iowa

Average refund: $2,602

Number of refunds: 1,141,151

Total income tax refunded: $3 billion

New Hampshire

Average refund: $2,602

Number of refunds: 558,359

Total income tax refunded: $1.4 billion

Missouri

Average refund: $2,601

Number of refunds: 2,220,029

Total income tax refunded: $5.7 billion

South Carolina

Average refund: $2,569

Number of refunds: 1,719,299

Total income tax refunded: $4.4 billion

Hawaii

Average refund: $2,564

Number of refunds: 535,763

Total income tax refunded: $1.4 billion

Michigan

Average refund: $2,560

Number of refunds: 3,776,668

Total income tax refunded: $9.7 billion

Ohio

Average refund: $2,517

Number of refunds: 4,570,589

Total income tax refunded: $11.5 billion

Minnesota

Average refund: $2,516

Number of refunds: 2,112,212

Total income tax refunded: $5.3 billion

Idaho

Average refund: $2,457

Number of refunds: 561,133

Total income tax refunded: $1.4 billion

Wisconsin

Average refund: $2,436

Number of refunds: 2,236,886

Total income tax refunded: $5.4 billion

Montana

Average refund: $2,401

Number of refunds: 372,817

Total income tax refunded: $895 million

Oregon

Average refund: $2,398

Number of refunds: 1,431,924

Total income tax refunded: $3.4 billion

Vermont

Average refund: $2,392

Number of refunds: 254,192

Total income tax refunded: $608 million

Maine

Average refund: $2,336

Number of refunds: 509,896

Total income tax refunded: $1.2 billion

Average tax refund by state
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"The consumer is lost in the woods and this makes for a gloomy economic outlook this year if they cannot find their way," said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. "The Fed was wise to move to the sidelines."

Retail sales dropped 0.2 percent as households cut back on purchases of furniture, clothing, food and electronics and appliances, as well as building materials and gardening equipment. Data for January was revised higher to show retail sales increasing 0.7 percent instead of gaining 0.2 percent as previously reported.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast retail sales rising 0.3 percent in February. Retail sales in February advanced 2.2 percent from a year ago.

The surprise drop in sales in February could partly reflect delays in processing tax refunds in the middle of the month. Tax refunds have also been smaller on average compared to prior years following the revamping of the tax code in January 2018. Cold and wet weather could also have hurt sales.

The February retail sales report was delayed by a 35-day partial shutdown of the federal government that ended on Jan. 25. March's retail sales report, which was scheduled for publication on April 16, will be released on April 18.

The dollar was trading lower against a basket of currencies, while Treasury prices were down. U.S. stocks rose.

Excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, retail sales fell 0.2 percent in February after an upwardly revised 1.7 percent surge in January. These so-called core retail sales correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product.

DEMAND WEAKENING

They were previously reported to have rebounded 1.1 percent in January. Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of economic activity. The sharp upward revision to core retail sales in January was insufficient to reverse December's more than 2.0 percent plunge, leaving expectations for tepid GDP growth in the first quarter intact.

Growth estimates for the January-March quarter are as low as a 0.8 percent annualized rate. The economy grew at a 2.2 percent rate in the fourth quarter after expanding at a 3.4 percent clip in the July-September period.

But green shoots are emerging in some sectors of the economy. In a separate report on Monday, the Institute for Supply Management said its index of national factory activity rose to a reading of 55.3 in March from 54.2 in February, which had marked the lowest level since November 2016.

The reading was slightly above expectations of 54.5 from a Reuters poll of 69 economists. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in the manufacturing sector and a reading below 50 indicates contraction.

Another report from the Commerce Department showed construction spending rose 1.0 percent to a nine-month high in February after surging 2.5 percent in January.

The February retail sales report showed receipts at building materials and garden equipment and supplies dealers tumbled 4.4 percent, the biggest drop since April 2012. Receipts at clothing stores fell 0.4 percent and those at furniture outlets dropped 0.5 percent.

Sales at food and beverage stores declined 1.2 percent, the biggest drop since February 2009. Receipts at electronics and appliances stores fell 1.3 percent, the largest decline since May 2017.

But consumers bought more motor vehicles, with sales at auto dealerships rebounding 0.7 percent after declining 1.9 percent in January. Households also spent more at service stations, likely reflecting higher gasoline prices.

Online and mail-order retail sales rose 0.9 percent. Sales at restaurants and bars edged up 0.1 percent and spending at hobby, musical instrument and book stores increased 0.5 percent.

Slowing demand was highlighted by a fourth report from the Commerce Department showing business inventories rose 0.8 percent in January.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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