Retail sales fell more than expected last month, according to this morning’s update from the US Census Bureau. Spending dropped 0.3% in September—a sharp reversal from August’s robust 0.6% gain and the first monthly dose of red ink since January. The news arrives in the wake of a hefty wave of selling in the stock market lately and so it’s tempting to see dark signals in today’s release. The weak data on retail spending could be the start of trouble for the macro climate in the US, but it may just as easily turn out to be noise. For the moment, the latter is a reasonable view, based on the year-over-year trend.
Retail sales increased 4.3% in September vs. the year-earlier level (the gain is 5.1% when you strip out gasoline sales). Yes, last month’s annual pace decelerated relative to August, but the year-over-year trend continues to rank in the middling category relative to recent history. A 4%-plus increase in spending on an annual basis is far from spectacular, but it’s decent… assuming it endures.
The worst you can say at the moment is that the trend in retail spending is softer vs. the previous batch of numbers, but that’s about as far as the bearish analysis goes. From the perspective of analyzing the business cycle, today’s release doesn’t change the general view that moderate growth prevails. One reason for thinking that today’s report may not be a harbinger of doom: growth in payrolls perked up last month, rising the most since June. Another positive of late: the ongoing slide in gasoline prices (down roughly 14% since the end of June), which provides consumers with additional discretionary income as we go into the holiday shopping season.
Even so, with various geopolitical risks lurking and a new phase of deterioration in Europe’s macro trend, the current climate has become moderately more precarious overall. Today’s retail sales data is hardly a smoking gun, but it’s fair to say that the crowd’s tolerance for disappointment may wear thin without more encouraging numbers in the weeks ahead.
Meantime, managing expectations down a notch is prudent. “The pickup in consumption that we’re all waiting for hasn’t quite taken off yet,” reminds Omair Sharif, an economist at RBS Securities. “The fact that real wages and salaries haven’t picked up that dramatically, it puts a ceiling on how much spending can accelerate.”