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So far, the surge in retail spending promised by the plunge in gasoline prices has not materialized. The latest Redbook chain store sales numbers dipped below the gently rising trend last week, perhaps because of severe weather, but the point is that the holiday season burst of spending has not been maintained.
The downshift in the rate of growth of retail sales, which has caused a degree of consternation among investors, likely has further to run. The Redbook chain store sales survey clearly warned at the turn of the year that a slowdown was coming, but forecasters didn't want hear the warning: Five of the seven non-auto retail sales numbers released this year have undershot consensus.
Investors and market observers of a relatively bearish persuasion argued over the weekend that the details of the October employment report were less encouraging than the headline, principally because the household survey showed that all the job growth, net, was among older workers, defined as people aged 55-plus. This, they argue, suggests that most of the increased demand for labor was concentrated in low-paid service sector jobs, where older workers are concentrated, perhaps reflecting retail hiring ahead of the holidays. Such a wave of hiring is unlikely to be repeated over the next few months, so payroll growth won't be sustained at its October pace.
After last week's relatively light flow of data, today brings a wave of information on both the pace of economic growth and inflation. The markets' attention likely will fall first on the September retail sales numbers, which will be subject to at least three separate forces. First, the jump in auto sales reported by the manufacturers a couple of weeks ago ought to keep the headline sales numbers above water.
The theory of spontaneous combustion of the U.S. economy appears to be making something of a comeback, if our inbox and market chat is to be believed. The core idea here is that expansions die of old age, and can be helped on their way to oblivion by factors like falling corporate earnings and rising inventory. The current recovery, which began in June 2009 and is now 63 months old, already looks a bit long-in-the-tooth.
We are not bothered by either the drop in real December consumption, all of which was due to a weather-induced plunge in utility spending, or the drop in the ISM manufacturing index, which is mostly a story about hopeless seasonal adjustments.
Retail sales have lost steam over the past couple of months, even if you look through the headline gyrations triggered by swings in auto sales and gasoline prices.
The expectations components of both the Michigan and Conference Board measures of consumers' confidence have risen sharply since gasoline prices rolled over.
If the Redbook chain store sales survey moved consistently in line with the official core retail sales numbers, it would attract a good deal more attention in the markets. We appreciate that brick-and-mortar retailers are losing market share to online sellers, but the rate at which sales are moving to the web is quite steady and easy to accommodate when comparing the Redbook with the official data.
The rate of growth of chain store sales has levelled off in recent months, after slowing dramatically in the first four months of this year, almost certainly in response to falling prices for dollar-sensitive goods like household electronics. In the fourth quarter of last year, the Redbook recorded same-store sales growth averaging 4.3%, but that has slowed to a 1-to-2% range since April.
We are a bit troubled by the persistent weakness of the Redbook chain store sales numbers. We aren't ready to sound an alarm, but we are puzzled at the recent declines in the rate of growth of same-store sales to new post-crash lows. On the face of it, the recent performance of the Redbook, shown in our first chart, is terrible. Sales rose only 0.5% in the year to July, during which time we estimate nominal personal incomes rose nearly 3%.
The Redbook chain store sales survey used to be our favorite indicator of the monthly core retail sales numbers, but over the past year it has parted company from the official data. Year-over-year growth in Redbook sales has slowed to just 0.7% in February, from a recent peak of 4.6% in the year to December 2014
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