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posted on 07 October 2016

Headline August 2016 Wholesale Sales Improved

Written by Steven Hansen

The headlines say wholesale sales were up month-over-month with inventory levels significantly reduced but remaining at levels associated with recessions. Our analysis shows a significant improvement of the 3 month averages but they still remain in contraction.

Analyst Opinion of this month's Wholesale Sales

We continue to be mystified in the wobble in this data set - there is something wrong with either data collection or methodology. This sector improved significantly this month but the rolling averages are marginally in a recession. The big growth this month came from chemicals and drugs - go figure! I wish I could say something profound but this data resembles a crazy quilt which has not pattern or logic. Look at the growth of the unadjusted data month-over-month.

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

  • unadjusted sales rate of growth accelerated 13.4 % month-over-month.
  • unadjusted sales year-over-year growth is up 6.7 % year-over-year (it was down 6.7 % last month)
  • unadjusted sales (but inflation adjusted) up 7.5 % year-over-year
  • the 3 month rolling average of unadjusted sales accelerated 2.1 % month-over-month, and down 0.2 % year-over-year.

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


  • unadjusted inventories statistically unchanged year-over-year (up 0.5 % month-over-month), inventory-to-sales ratio is 1.38 which historically is well above recessionary levels.

US Census Headlines based on seasonally adjusted data:

  • sales up 0.7 % month-over-month, up 0.6 % (last month was reported down 1.0 %) year-over-year
  • inventories down 0.2 % month-over-month, inventory-to-sales ratios were 1.33 one year ago - and are now 1.34.
  • no market expectations from Bloomberg / Econoday)

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) is extremely high.

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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