When the going gets tough…the tough American consumer goes shopping, right? Do the virtues of thrift and frugality truly stand a chance in America? Let’s review the recently released Retail Sales report and navigate this leg of our economic landscape.
The Wall Street Journal provides a snapshot of the surprisingly strong headline number, but dare I say the WSJ does not provide a full comprehensive review. Let’s navigate.
The consumer pulled back sharply in September-but it was mostly due to the post-”clunkers” drop in auto sales. Otherwise, the numbers were surprisingly healthy for the most part. Overall retail sales in September dropped 1.5 percent after a 2.2 percent spike the month before. The September drop in sales was not as severe as the market forecast for a 2.1 percent fall. The decline was led by a 10.4 percent plunge in auto sales after a 7.8 percent boost in August. Excluding motor vehicles, retail sales advanced 0.5 percent, following a 1.0 percent jump in August. The consensus had expected a 0.3 percent rise for September.
In typical fashion, the focus on the current month’s outperformance is not properly measured in the context of the previous month’s downward revision. If The WSJ wanted to provide real integrity in its reporting, it would provide an equal weighting to the revision in conjunction with the actual report. In doing so, we witness that this month’s so called outperformance is almost uniformly balanced by last month’s downward revision. We witness a similar dynamic at work in Retail Sales excluding auto sales, as well.
By incorporating the revisions, retail sales over the last two months show a marginally positive trend, but hardly the ’surprisingly healthy’ review provided by The WSJ and other market mavens.
Checking on the other volatile component, gasoline sales provided lift, gaining 1.1 percent in the latest month.
Is this an indication of increased consumer confidence and thus the willingness to travel more, or merely a function of increased prices for gas . . . or perhaps a combination of the two? To tout it as a pure positive is disingenuous.
Nonetheless, excluding motor vehicles and gasoline, retail sales rose 0.4 percent, following a 0.6 percent gain the previous month. Although core components were mixed, they were mostly positive and reflected sizeable gains. Apparently, the consumers that have jobs are a little more optimistic and are willing to spend.
Again, not a clear cut overwhelmingly positive trendline, despite what The WSJ may want to report. I still maintain we are, at best, a third of the way into our marathon towards a newly defined Uncle Sam economy. As such, it is still prudent to assess where we are in the grand scheme. To that end:
Overall retail sales on a year-ago basis in September improved marginally to down 5.7 percent, from down 5.8 percent in August. Excluding motor vehicles, the year-on-year rate increased to minus 4.9 percent in September from down 6.3 percent the previous month.
Enjoy the ride higher in equities, but don’t get overly caught up in the euphoria. Analysts may neglect to properly measure revisions, but we do it at our peril if we want to properly navigate the economic landscape.