WASHINGTON (AP) — U.S. wholesale businesses increased their stockpiles in December at the slowest pace in 17 months, and sales were weak for a fifth month.

The Commerce Department says that wholesale stockpiles edged up a slight 0.1 percent in December, the smallest increase since a similar 0.1 percent rise in July 2013. Inventories had been up 0.8 percent in November.

Sales at the wholesale level fell 0.4 percent in December, matching the drop in November. Sales have either fallen or stayed unchanged for five consecutive months.

The deceleration of stockpile growth in December could be a reaction to the sales slowdown, with businesses cutting back on restocking in the face of weaker demand. But economists remain optimistic that sales will rebound in 2015 and help push the economy forward.

(Story by: Martin Crutsinger, Economics Writer, The Associated Press)