Thursday, January 12, 2012

Retail Sales and Employment Not as Good as First Reported


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.

There has much cheerleading in the mainstream press lately about the improving employment situation and strong 2011 holiday retail sales. Just released figures indicate it may have been much ado about nothing.

Retailers depend on the holiday season for their yearly profits. Major efforts were made in November to get people to start buying early. This worked and retail sales were up 0.4% during the month. Strong early numbers don't necessarily mean overall numbers will be greater however. It can simply mean that buying activity was frontloaded and the later numbers will then be weak. This is exactly what happened. Retail sales were up a whopping 0.1% in December (retail sales are not adjusted for inflation, the number would be negative if it had been).

Looking inside the report shows how incredibly weak the consumer is. Excluding autos, which are highly volatile, retail sales were 0.2% lower -- the first drop since May 2010. Core retail sales, which exclude autos, gasoline and building materials were down 0.1%. Even though it was the height of the holiday buying season, spending at electronic and appliance stores was down 3.9% and spending at department stores was down 0.2%. Once again, if the numbers had been adjusted for inflation they would have been even worse.

So how come U.S. consumers aren't spending more now that the employment situation is supposedly getting better?  Well, maybe it's because it isn't. The big news lately has been the declining weekly claims which have fallen below the traditional 400,000 per week that indicates recession. However, for the first week of 2012 they came in at 399,000 -- back at recession levels. This was up from the 372,000 reported the previous week (three states including mega-sized California didn't send in their claims numbers for this report).  Of course, the mainstream press blew the trumpets about the "good", but highly questionable, 372,000 number, just as it did for the 200,000 jobs that were allegedly created in December 2011.

Among these jobs were 42,000 new messenger positions. While it's more likely that 42,000 messengers were hired in December than 42,000 nuclear physicists, that doesn't mean it is believable. Messengers work in a field with declining employment. The December jobs report has been criticized as having "statistical adjustment" problems. Non-statisticians generally refer to this as lying about the numbers. Of course, the appearance of suddenly improving economic news (not to be confused with an economy that is actually improving) at the beginning of a presidential election year should not be surprising.

As the election season heats up, there will be a desire for the government to report that economic conditions are better than they actually are.  This does not mean the news will necessarily be good, it will just be better than it actually is. Expect the bad news to come out after the November election.  Until then, invest with caution. 

Disclosure: None

Daryl Montgomery
Author: "Inflation Investing - A Guide for the 2010s"
Organizer, New York Investing meetup

This posting is editorial opinion. There is no intention to endorse the purchase or sale of any security.

1 comment:


I do not trust the economic reports.