Business inventories were up 0.6% and sales levels fell 0.5% in December, according to Commerce Department data released yesterday.

Business inventories rose to $1.445 billion following an unrevised 0.4% gain in November. IFR Markets had projected that business inventories would be up 0.4% in the month. Overall inventories were 4.0% above the December 2006 level, according to the Commerce numbers.

Stocks of autos — by far the largest component of inventories — dropped 1.6% in December, following November’s 0.4% decrease. The category is up 3.2% from the previous December.

Meanwhile, the 0.5% decline in overall business sales brought the category to $1.147 billion. The December figure followed a downwardly revised 1.4% gain in November, originally reported as a 1.6% increase, and compared to IFR’s projected 0.5% increase.

The stock to sales ratio was 1.26 in the month, compared to 1.25 in November and 1.28 in December 2006.

The Commerce Department said the rise in business inventories was the largest since July 2006, while the retail motor-vehicle parts category posted its largest decline since November 2006.

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