U.S. November retail sales played a role in boosting the economy

12/13/2011 by Alex Carrick

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Media hype concerning records set by retailers on Black Friday and Cyber Monday may have led to unrealistic expectations of how strong the November retail sales report from the Census Bureau would be.

The total dollar volume pulled ahead 0.2% month to month, which was respectable but not outstanding.

On a year-over-year basis, however, the increase was +6.7%. That’s a significant advance and should not be too readily dismissed.

A year-over-year total retail sales figure of +5.0% or higher, when prices are relatively restrained (such as now), is a cause for celebration.

It means the consumer spending component of gross domestic product (GDP) is doing its part to boost overall economic activity in the country.

Personal consumption expenditures account for 70% of GDP in the U.S.

It’s interesting to note the retail sub-categories where the year-over-year gains in sales have been greater than for the sector as a whole.

In the latest month, sales by motor vehicle and parts dealers were +7.5% compared with November of last year.

Furthermore, momentum stayed strong. The month-to-month change was +0.5%.

Sales at the gas pump were +12.9% year over year. That was an outsized increase and was mainly due to higher prices. Remember that the retail sales figures are reported in current dollars, not constant.

In other words, there is no adjustment for inflation in the dollar amounts reported.

Consumers are starting to get a break with respect to the price of gasoline. Whereas earlier this year, gas prices were nearly +40% year over year, they have moderated to +20%. 

Gasoline prices have taken a zigzag path in 2011. At various times, the Arab Spring has cast uncertainty on the availability of global oil supplies.

At the onset of the uprising in Libya, and in the midst of the ensuing conflict, there were actual supply disruptions to fields supplying customers in Europe.

The world price of oil became elevated for a while, climbing above $110 U.S. per barrel for West Texas Intermediate and $120 for Brent crude.

When the outcome in Libya became clearer, the world price of oil slid all the way back into the high $70 range. It has now returned close to $100 per barrel.

U.S. non-store retail sales in the latest month were +13.9% year over year. This is the category where Internet sales and catalogue shopping appear.

Both non-store sales (+1.5%) and electronic and appliance store sales (+2.1%) surged in November compared with October, which is consistent with the aforementioned reports on post-Thanksgiving Day sales targets being exceeded.

The willingness of Americans to spend money is a bit of a surprise, given the alleged belt-tightening that was supposed to be occurring.

What’s perhaps most noteworthy is the dichotomy between retail spending and the acquisition of residences.    

While Americans seem willing to hand over money for everyday items, the much larger commitment to a new home is still in abeyance.

One is encouraged to speculate that it may not be long before this situation turns around.

Interest rates are at record lows. Home prices offer incredible once-in-a-lifetime bargains.

There may still be a lot of empty foreclosed homes on the market, but there are also many deteriorating homes that are demolished each year, reducing available inventory.

The homebuilding sector will tell you the current problem with demand is too many people being turned down for mortgage applications.

This is the aftermath of banks being worried about their solvency.

As the economy continues to chalk up better employment numbers, the extreme caution of lenders will gradually be relaxed  

Retail has recovered. Look for a soon-to-be-steady improvement in the U.S. housing sector.

The timing could not be more fortuitous.

With Europe continuing to struggle and China appearing to have some slowing-growth issues of its own, the U.S. may finally be putting a boot in the stirrup.

The world would like to see the American cavalry officer mount up once again and come to its rescue.

U.S. retail sales – three months smoothed
U.S. retail sales – three months smoothed
*"Year over year" is each month versus the same month of the previous year.
Based on latest three-month averages of current dollar adjusted data (and placed in latest month).
Adjustments are for seasonal variation, holiday and trading day differences, but not for price changes.
Data source: U.S. Census Bureau (Department of Commerce).
Chart: Reed Construction Data - CanaData.
U.S. construction-related retail sales – three months smoothed
U.S. construction-related retail sales – three months smoothed
*"Year over year" is each month versus the same month of the previous year.
Based on latest three-month averages of current dollar adjusted data (and placed in latest month).
Adjustments are for seasonal variation, holiday and trading day differences, but not for price changes.
Data source: U.S. Census Bureau (Department of Commerce).
Chart: Reed Construction Data - CanaData.
U.S. retail sales – three months smoothed
U.S. retail sales – three months smoothed
Data source: U.S. Census Bureau (Department of Commerce).
Chart: Reed Construction Data - CanaData.

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