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posted on 08 April 2016

February 2016 Wholesale Sales Decline?

Written by Steven Hansen

The headlines say wholesale sales were down month-over-month with inventory levels remaining at levels associated with recessions. Our analysis shows an improving trend of the 3 month averages. The best way to look at this series may be the unadjusted data three month rolling averages.

Note that Econintersect analysis is based on the change from one year ago. Econintersect Analysis:

  • unadjusted sales rate of growth accelerated 7.7 % month-over-month.
  • unadjusted sales year-over-year growth is up 0.7 % year-over-year
  • unadjusted sales (but inflation adjusted) down 0.1 % year-over-year
  • the 3 month rolling average of unadjusted sales accelerated 1.2 % month-over-month, and down 3.6 % year-over-year. There has been a general deceleration trend since late 2014.

Year-over-Year Sales - Unadjusted (blue line), Unadjusted but Inflation Adjusted (red line), 3 month Rolling Averages (yellow line)


  • unadjusted inventories up 0.5 % year-over-year (deceleration of 1.3 % month-over-month), inventory-to-sales ratio is 1.48 which is historically is at recessionary levels.

US Census Headlines based on seasonally adjusted data:

  • sales down 0.2 % month-over-month, down 3.1 % (last month was reported down 3.1 %) year-over-year
  • inventories down 0.5 % month-over-month, inventory-to-sales ratios were 1.31 one year ago - and are now 1.36.
  • the market (from Bloomberg) expected inventory month-over-month change between -0.6 % to 0.4 % (consensus -0.2 %) versus the -0.2 % reported.

Wholesale Sales - Unadjusted - $ Millions


Wholesale sales were at record highs for almost two years - until 2015 where they contracted year-over-year (and the contraction continues). Overall, the inventory-to-sales ratios (a rising ratio is an indicator of economic slowing) was high relative to past Februarys.

Unadjusted Inventory-to-Sales Ratio (blue line - left axis), Year-over-Year Change (red line - right axis)


Year-over-year change in the inventory-to-sales ratio is what is important. A jump in the ratio which could indicate a slowing economy (one month of data is not a trend). A flat trend would indicate an economy which was neither accelerating or decelerating. A decelerating trend would indicate an improving economy. Since mid-2014 there has been a general deterioration of the inventory-to-sales ratio indicating a slowing economy.

Caveats on the Use of this Index

The data in this index continues to be revised up to 3 months following initial reporting. The revision usually is not significant enough to change the interpretation of each month's data in real time. Generally there are also annual revisions to this data series.

The methodology used by US Census to seasonally adjust the data is not providing a realistic understanding of the month-to-month movements of the data. One reason is that US Census uses data over multiple years which includes the largest modern recession which likely distorts the analysis. Further, Econintersect believes there has been a fundamental shift in seasonality in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2007 - the New Normal.

Econintersect determines the month-over-month change by subtracting the current month's year-over-year change from the previous month's year-over-year change. This is the best of the bad options available to determine month-over-month trends - as the preferred methodology would be to use multi-year data (but the New Normal effects and the Great Recession distort historical data).

This series is NOT inflation adjusted. To make this adjustment Econintersect uses the PPI - subindex Total Wholesale AWHLTRAWHLTR.

As economic indicators go, wholesale sales and inventories are poor at spotting economic problems. Wholesale data did not start contracting during the Great Recession until October 2008. The only portion of wholesale trade data which seems to correspond to general economic conditions is wholesale trade employment.

All Employees - Wholesale

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