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Winter storms threaten to chill much of recent growth in nation's economy

Retail sales tumbled in January after a smaller decline in December, the government said Thursday. The news came as another snowstorm blanketed a third of the country, likely ensuring that February will mark a third straight month of weak job growth.
Published: February 13, 2014
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The winter storms barreling across much of the United States are undercutting the nation’s economy just when signs of stronger growth had begun to emerge.

Retail sales tumbled in January after a smaller decline in December, the government said Thursday. The news came as another snowstorm blanketed a third of the country, likely ensuring that February will mark a third straight month of weak job growth.

Some economists responded by lowering their overall growth estimates for the January-March quarter. Freezing weather usually slows the economy during winter before growth picks up once temperatures rise again. But the onslaught of snow days this winter could prolong the slowdown.

Harsh conditions tend to rob many hourly workers of income. Waiters, limousine drivers and store employees might never recoup their lost wages later in the year, said Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial.

Snow days across the Eastern Seaboard forced many parents to stay home from work. Atlanta closed schools for a third straight day; Philadelphia for the fifth time this winter.

At the same time, home heating bills have escalated for many such families, many of whom have no choice but to reduce spending elsewhere.

Swonk estimates economic growth during the first three months of this year will be “well below” a 2 percent annual rate — a steep drop from the 3.2 percent rate in the final quarter of 2013.

Several major retailers and restaurant chains have blamed winter storms for chilling sales. McDonald’s said bad weather hurt its U.S. sales last month. Whole Foods said weather was one reason its fiscal first-quarter profit and revenue fell below expectations. And in late January, Wal-Mart blamed severe weather for a fourth-quarter drop in revenue.

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