The Commerce Department said Friday that business inventories grew 0.8 per cent in July, up from June's 0.1 per cent gain. Sales jumped 0.9 per cent, the most this year, after a steep fall in June.
The biggest growth in stockpiles was among retailers and auto dealers. Stockpiles at manufacturers and wholesalers rose more slowly.
Companies typically boost their stockpiles when they anticipate sales will rise in coming months. Faster restocking helps drive economic growth. When businesses order more goods, it typically leads to more factory production.
Total business stockpiles rose to $1.59 trillion. That's nearly 21 per cent higher than the low reached in September 2009, when businesses were slashing inventories in response to the recession.
A separate report Friday showed that sales of cars and pickup trucks rose sharply in August, while broader retail sales were weak. If sales remain slow, that could force many companies to cut back their stockpiles, slowing the economy.
The economy grew at a 1.7 per cent annual pace in the April-June quarter. That's down from 2 per cent in the January-March quarter and 4.1 per cent in the final three months of last year. Many economists forecast that growth will be about 2 per cent for the rest of this year.
That's not fast enough to spur more hiring. Employers added only 96,000 jobs in August, below the 141,000 added in July and far below the average gains of 226,000 a month in the first quarter.
The unemployment rate fell to 8.1 per cent in August from 8.3 per cent in July, but only because the number of people in the work force shrank.
On Thursday, the Federal Reserve said it would purchase $40 billion of mortgage-backed securities a month until the economy and job market steadily improve. Fed officials also said they would keep short-term interest rates low even after the economic recovery accelerates.
Wholesale stockpiles account for about 27 per cent of total business inventories. Stockpiles held by retailers make up about one-third of the total and manufacturing inventories represent about 40 per cent.