Retail sales increased 0.3% in October, the Census Bureau reports — in line with expectations. The annual growth rate for spending slipped modestly, advancing 4.1% for the year through last month vs. 4.4% in the previous update. Nonetheless, today’s data shows that the consumption trend on Main Street remains comfortably in the 4%-plus range, which has prevailed since March. One reason for expecting that sales will remain on a moderate growth path: falling gasoline prices, which have provided a substantial boost to disposable income lately.
Since the end of this past June, the average price of a gallon of regular gas in the US has slumped 20%. Today’s retail sales report offers a measure of how that slide has positively impacted retail sales. Spending at gasoline stations dropped 1.5% last month, according to this morning’s release from the US Census Bureau. For the trailing 12 months through October, gasoline purchases are down 4.0%.
The effect on spending ex-gasoline is clear, as the chart below shows. Headline retail sales ex-gasoline climbed 5.1% for the year through last month (blue line) — a sizable margin over the top-line 4.1% rise for retail spending including gas (red line).
Many energy analysts expect prices for crude oil and gasoline to remain at current levels if not dip further in the weeks and months ahead. “Supply/demand balances suggest that the price rout has yet to run its course,” the International Energy Agency advised in a new monthly report. “Our supply and demand forecasts indicate that barring any new supply disruption, downward price pressures could build further in the first half of 2015.”
A bear market for oil and gas alone doesn’t guarantee that retail spending will continue to grow, but it sure helps. Add in the holiday-shopping factor that’s about to kick in and it’s reasonable to argue that consumer spending, which represents roughly 70% of US economic activity, is on track to rise further in the foreseeable future.