By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. consumer spending barely rose in August likely as Hurricane Harvey weighed on auto sales, while annual inflation increased at its slowest pace in nearly two years, pointing to a moderation in economic growth in the third quarter.
The weak report from the Commerce Department on Friday did little to change expectations that the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates in December. Fed Chair Janet Yellen said this week the U.S. central bank needed to continue gradual rate hikes despite uncertainty about the path of inflation.
"We think current economic conditions are heavily impacted by the effect of the recent hurricanes," said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. "The Fed will rightly look over any soft patch for economic growth in the third quarter."
Consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, edged up 0.1 percent last month also likely as unseasonably mild temperatures in some parts of the country reduced demand for utilities.
The gain, which followed a 0.3 percent increase in July, was in line with economists' expectations. The government said the data reflected the effects of Hurricane Harvey.
However, it could not separately quantify the total impact of Harvey on the data. The government made adjustments to estimates where source data were not yet available or did not fully reflect the effects of the storm.
Inflation remained muted in August, with the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding food and energy rising 0.1 percent. The so-called core PCE has advanced by the same margin for four straight months.
As a result, the annual increase in the core PCE price index slowed to 1.3 percent in August after advancing 1.4 percent in July. That was the smallest year-on-year increase since November 2015. The core PCE is the Fed's preferred inflation measure and has been undershooting its 2 percent target since 2012.
The Fed signaled last week it anticipated one more interest rate increase by the end of the year. It has increased borrowing costs twice this year. Financial markets are pricing a roughly 76 percent probability of an interest rate hike in December, according to the CME FedWatch tool.
The dollar was little changed against a basket of currencies, while prices for U.S. Treasuries fell. Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher.
"The Fed appears poised to look through surprises in inflation data over the next few months," said Ellen Zentner, chief U.S. economist at Morgan Stanley in New York.
When adjusted for inflation, consumer spending slipped 0.1 percent in August, the first drop since January.
HURRICANES SLOWING GROWTH
The report was the latest suggestion that Harvey, together with Hurricane Irma, would dent economic growth in the third quarter. The economy grew at a brisk 3.1 percent annualized rate in the second quarter, with consumers doing the heavy lifting.
Harvey, which tore through Texas in late August, has undercut industrial production, homebuilding and home sales. Further declines are expected after Irma slammed Florida in early September.
Economists estimate the storms could slice off as much as six-tenths of a percentage point from third-quarter GDP growth. The Atlanta Fed is forecasting the economy growing at a 2.3 percent rate in the July-September quarter.
However, a pick-up in output is expected in the fourth quarter as communities ravaged by the hurricanes rebuild.
Segments of the economy not impacted by the storms are pulling ahead. In a separate report on Friday, the Institute for Supply Management Chicago said its MNI Chicago business barometer rose to a reading of 65.2 this month from 58.9 in August. The second-highest reading in more than three years partly reflected a jump in order backlogs to a 29-year high.
A third report showed consumer sentiment holding at lofty levels this month. That offers hope that consumer spending will accelerate in the coming months, though sluggish wage growth remains a concern.
Consumer spending in August was held back by a 1.1 percent decline in outlays on long-lasting manufactured goods. The Commerce Department said spending on new motor vehicles was the leading contributor to the drop in the so-called durable goods.
Auto manufacturers reported that Hurricane Harvey had impacted on sales in the last week of August.
Healthcare spending boosted services outlays, which rose 0.3 percent in August.
Harvey also probably impacted on income in August. Personal income rose 0.2 percent last month after increasing 0.3 percent in July. Wages were unchanged after climbing 0.5 percent in July.
"There was zero wage growth nationally last month as workers idled, or dislocated, from the hurricane could not work," said Scott Anderson, chief U.S. economist at Bank of the West in San Francisco.
With wages stagnant, consumers dipped into savings to fund spending. Savings fell to an eight-month low of $522.9 billion in August from $524.8 billion in the prior month.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)