WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Wholesale inventories rose in March, fueled by increased stocks of cars and machinery which have provided support for economic growth early in the year.

The Commerce Department said on Thursday wholesale inventories rose 0.4 percent, just above the median forecast in a Reuters poll for a 0.3 percent gain.

The increase in inventories could reinforce the view that the pace of economic growth picked up in the first three months of the year, bolstered by businesses restocking their shelves. In March, inventories of cars rose 1.2 percent, as did stocks of machinery.

Sales by wholesalers, however, unexpectedly fell in March, down 1.6 percent. It was the biggest drop in four years and confounded economists' expectations for a 0.1 percent increase.

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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