U.S. business inventories (search) rose slightly more than expected in November while sales growth eased, Commerce Department (search) data showed on Friday.

November's 1.0 percent inventory rise surpassed Wall Street expectations for a 0.6 percent increase and followed a 0.4 percent rise in October. Sales by manufacturers, retailers and merchant wholesalers rose a more modest 0.4 percent in November after increasing 1.4 percent the month before.

Increasing inventories can signal either business confidence in future demand or an unexpected decline in sales which has led to involuntary stock building.

Deciding which of these interpretations is the case is helped by a sense of whether stocks are lean by historical standards from looking at the inventories-to-sales ratio.

The measure of the number of months it would take to deplete stocks at the current rate of sales rose slightly in November to 1.31 months' worth, from a record low 1.30 months in October.

At a more detailed level within the report, retail inventories rose 1.1 percent in November while retail sales rose 0.1 percent. Excluding motor vehicles, retail inventories (search) rose 0.9 percent, the highest rate since May 2000.