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High heating bills distort spending data

Spending on nondurable goods, including things such as clothing and food, dropped 0.7 percent in January.

Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

Spending on nondurable goods, including things such as clothing and food, dropped 0.7 percent in January.

WASHINGTON — Americans spent more in January, but the increase came from a surge in spending on heating bills during a harsh winter. Spending on things like autos and clothing declined.

Spending rose 0.4 percent after a 0.1 percent gain in December, the Commerce Department said Monday. The December figure was revised down from a 0.4 percent increase.

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Income grew 0.3 percent in January after no increase in December.

The overall spending increase in January reflected a 0.8 percent jump in spending on services, the effect of higher heating bills. It was the biggest increase in spending on services since October 2001.

Spending on durable goods such as autos fell 0.3 percent. And spending on nondurable goods, covering things like clothing and food, dropped 0.7 percent.

‘‘Spending looks great but is not,’’ said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics. Without an 11.3 percent surge in spending on utility bills, Shepherdson said, consumer spending would have been close to flat.

Consumer spending drives about 70 percent of US economic activity. On Friday, the government said the economy grew at a 2.4 percent annual rate in the October-December quarter, down from an initial estimate of 3.2 percent.

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And ‘‘given that the weather was unusually severe in February too, the outlook is more uncertain than usual,’’ said Paul Dales, senior US economist at Capital Economics.

The 0.3 percent rise in income was partly influenced by temporary factors, such as the start of health care coverage in several areas under the Affordable Care Act. But the expiration of benefits for some long-term unemployed people acted to reduce income. Without those special factors, income would have risen 0.2 percent in January, the government said.

Inflation as measured by a price gauge tied to consumer spending remained moderate. It rose 0.1 percent in January and has risen 1.2 percent over the past 12 months, well below the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target.

Economists generally think overall growth this quarter will decline to an annual rate of around 2 percent. But they still foresee a rebound beginning in the April-June quarter and for the rest of the year. They expect that employment gains and a lessening of last year’s drag of higher taxes and federal spending cuts will support growth this year.

Many forecast that the overall economy will grow at a solid 3 percent annual rate this year, up from 1.9 percent growth in the gross domestic product last year. That would be the best performance since the recession ended nearly five years ago.

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