November 2011 Advance Retail Sales Just Ok, Not Great

Inflation adjusted retail sales year-over-year growth rates have remained between 2% and 4% for the last 8 months.  In November 2011, the year-over-year growth was 2.4%.

US Census Headlines:

  • sales up 0.2% month-over-month, up 6.7% year-over-year

Econintersect Analysis:

  • sales down 0.2% month-over-month, and up 6.8% year-over-year
  • sales (inflation adjusted) down 0.2% month-over-month, up 2.4% year-over-year

From the US Census Bureau press release:

The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for November, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $399.3 billion, an increase of 0.2 percent (±0.5%)* from the previous month and 6.7 percent (±0.7%) above November 2010. Total sales for the September through November 2011 period were up 7.4 percent (±0.5%) from the same period a year ago. The September to October 2011 percent change was revised from +1.1 percent (±0.3) to +1.3 percent (±0.3%).

Retail trade sales were up 0.3 percent (±0.5%)* from October 2011, and 6.8 percent (±0.7%) above last year. Nonstore retailers sales were up 13.9 percent (±2.3%) from November 2010 and gasoline stations sales were up 12.9 percent (±1.7%) from last year.

The difference between the headlines and Econintersect are due to different approaches to seasonal adjustment (see caveats at the end of this post).

November was again a record month (current dollars), with the last 9 months having record sales.  The weakest area in retail sales continues to be department stores.

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.  As the CPI is not yet released for the current month, Econintersect uses the previous month’s value in its analysis.

The St. Louis Fed also inflation adjusts this series using the CPI. The graph below, using data through October 2011, demonstrates how well retail sales track recessions. For this reason the metric is worth tracking closely.

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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