Thursday, January 14, 2010

2009 Retail Sales Deconstructed

The 'Helicopter Economics Investing Guide' is meant to help educate people on how to make profitable investing choices in the current economic environment. We have coined this term to describe the current monetary and fiscal policies of the U.S. government, which involve unprecedented money printing. This is the official blog of the New York Investing meetup.

U.S. retail sales for December 2009 were down 0.3%. News outlets reported this as a surprising turn of events. While I am tempted to agree with that viewpoint, it is only because there is enough inflation in the system to make retail sales look better. The retail numbers are not adjusted for price increases and this should always be kept in mind when viewing them. Higher retail numbers don't necessarily mean a better economy.

The Commerce Department reported retail sales were up 5.4% year over year. It would have been almost impossible for them to be lower, since December 2008 was when the Credit Crisis was close to its worse point. Nevertheless, three major retail categories - Electronic and Appliance Stores, Building Materials and Garden Equipment and Supplies, and Furniture and Home Furnishings - had lower sales in December 2009 than they did a year earlier. These three retail sectors are dependent on the health of the real estate market. 

So what went up to improve the numbers?  Gasoline sales rose 34% year over year and by themselves accounted for almost 50% of the total increase in the raw numbers.  This is pure inflation. It is not likely that actual gasoline use is up, especially with the Cash for Clunkers program having subsidized more fuel-efficient vehicles for American motorists.  Sales for Motor Vehicle and Parts Dealers were up 6% from 2008 and this accounted for another 19% of the increase in the yearly total. Government bailouts and stimulus programs are responsible for this increase. If you removed the inflation factor, and gasoline sales represent  only some of the inflation that might be in the numbers, and government programs that directly created higher sales, how much improvement would there have been?  Not much and there may have been none at all - so much for economic recovery.

There was one other important piece of information in the report for December that has significant ramifications. Sales at non-store retailers were up over 10% in 2009. Shifting of buying to the Internet is a strong negative for retailers doing business in physical stores, which are still struggling because of the economic downturn. This indicates that commercial lending, currently one of the major weak points in the U.S. banking system, will be even more troubled than it would have been from just the recession alone. Investors should assume more bailout money will be needed and this problem will go on longer than anticipated. However, as the retail sales report shows, government money can prop up an ailing sector of the economy, can make the economic numbers look better, and can create inflation, but it can't necessarily buy a recovery.

Disclosure: Not applicable.

NEXT: Toothless CFTC Tries to Bite Gold and Silver

Daryl Montgomery
Organizer,New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. Like all other postings for this blog, there is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

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