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Retail Sales Weak in December 2012

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Advance Retail Sales were again mixed in December 2012 depending if you follow the headlines or dive into the data. The headlines say retail was up moderately this month. This month, Econintersect‘s analysis is a lot worse than the headline data.

  • motor vehicles was the major driver, with a lot of support from most categories especially furniture stores and restaurants;
  • the headwind this month were electronic stores and gasoline sales;
  • there is no indications of a recession in retail sales – and the backward revisions were slight;
  • December was the lowest year-over-year growth in 2012.

Econintersect Analysis:

  • sales down 2.6% month-over-month, up 2.5% year-over-year
  • sales (inflation adjusted) down 2.6% month-over-month, up 1.0% year-over-year

U.S. Census Headlines:

  • sales up 0.5% month-over-month, up 4.7% year-over-year
  • the market was expecting 0.2% to 0.4% sales growth month-over-month (versus the 0.5% reported)

Year-over-Year Change – Unadjusted Retail Sales (blue line) and Inflation Adjusted Retail Sales (red line)

Inflation adjusted retail sales have mostly remained in a channel between 2% and 6% year-over-year increases since the end of 2010. This month, the data is in the bottom of the channel. Retail sales remains in a slight downward trend.

From the U.S. Census Bureau press release:

The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for December, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $415.7 billion, an increase of 0.5 percent (±0.5%)* from the previous month and 4.7 percent (±0.7%) above December 2011. Total sales for the 12 months of 2012 were up 5.2 percent (±0.6%) from 2011. Total sales for the October through December 2012 period were up 4.2 percent (±0.5%) from the same period a year ago. The October to November 2012 percent change was revised from +0.3 percent (±0.5%)* to +0.4 percent (±0.2%).

Retail trade sales were up 0.4 percent (±0.5%)* from November 2012 and 4.4 percent (±0.8%) above last year. Nonstore retailers were up 12.6 percent (±2.3%) from December 2011 and miscellaneous store retailers were up 9.9 percent (±5.6%) from last year.

Seasonally Adjusted Retail Sales – All (red line), All except food services (blue line), and All except motor vehicles (green line)

It is obvious from the above graphic that motor vehicle sales much of the time do not track overall retail sales.

The differences between the headlines and Econintersect are due to different approaches to seasonal adjustment (see caveats at the end of this post). Long and medium term trends always agree comparing the adjusted to the unadjusted data – it is the short term trends and month-over-month change where the conflict occurs.

Comparison of the Year-over-Year Census Seasonally Adjusted Retail Sales (blue line) and Econintersect’s Unadjusted Retail Sales (red line)

Declines of short duration often occur in the seasonally adjusted series without a recession resulting.

Retail and Food Services Sales – Seasonally Adjusted

Using employment as a gauge to check growth, employment in retail has been growing at a slower rate in 2012.

Retail Employment – Total Seasonally Adjusted (blue line, left axis) and Year-over-Year Change Unadjusted (red line, right axis)

And finally, as retail sales can be a component of determining a recession start date, the zero line of the graph below could be an indicator a recession was underway (or about to begin).

Retail Sales – Recession Watch Graph

Caveats On Advance Retail Sales

This data release is based on estimates. However, the estimates have proven to be fairly accurate although tend to miss at economic turning points. Therefore up to three months are subject to backward revisions, although normally slight, can sometimes be modest.

The data in this series is not inflation adjusted – and Econintersect adjusts using CPI less shelter CUSR0000SA0L2. The St. Louis Fed also inflation adjusts the Census seasonally adjusted data. The last two recessions began as the inflation adjusted retail sales crossed the zero growth line.

Comparison of Real Year-over-Year Growth between FRED’s Real Retail Sales (green line) and Econintersect’s Inflation Adjusted Retail Sales

As in most US Census reports, Econintersect does not agree with the seasonal adjustment methodology used and provides an alternate analysis. The issue is that the exceptionally large recession and subsequent economic roller coaster has caused data distortions that become exaggerated when the seasonal adjustment methodology uses more than one year’s worth of data. Further, Econintersect believes there is a New Normal seasonality. Using data prior to the end of the recession for seasonal analysis could provide the wrong conclusion.

The impact of the monthly retail sales data on GDP is not straight forward. Real GDP (of which the consumer is over 60%) is adjusted for inflation. Further, GDP is an analysis of quarter-over-quarter or year-over-year growth, while retail sales is a monthly data series.

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).

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