Retail sales jumped 1% on a seasonally adjusted basis last month, the Census Bureau reports. That’s the best monthly gain since last October’s 1.6% surge. It’s also the eighth straight monthly increase. Consumption, in other words, is doing fine. But quite a bit has changed on the global stage in recent weeks, namely, the Mideast turmoil and resulting jump in oil prices. The question is whether February data is dated?
Once again, the waiting game is back in vogue. We can celebrate the recent pop in economic numbers, but there are fresh reasons to wonder if newly accelerated economic rebound is headed for rougher waters. It’s premature to dismiss the revival in growth, but it’s also short-sighted to ignore the mounting hazards.
Even ignoring recent events, the case for expecting a slowing in the retail sales trend is plausible. Consider how consumption fares in recent history vs. industrial production and new orders for durable goods on a rolling 12-month basis. As the chart below reminds, retail sales have been performing rather well, perhaps a little too well vs. other economic measures. Or does this mean that the rest of the economy is poised to catch up with retail consumption?
But optimism is still bubbling that the Mideast trouble is temporary. “The data have been quite encouraging,” Rohit Garg, an interest-rate strategist at BNP Paribas, tells Bloomberg. “Of course we all think the sell-off is going to be limited for various reasons, like geopolitical risk.”
Perhaps the single-most important factor in assessing the future path of consumer spending is the price of gasoline. So far, the rise in gas prices doesn’t seem to be hurting retail sales. But if gas prices remain high and/or continue to increase, it’s only a matter of time before consumers will feel pinched.
In some parts of the country, gasoline prices have reached the $4 mark. Meanwhile, one oil industry executive remains cautiously optimistic:
Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson said Wednesday he doesn’t think the recent jump in oil prices is hurting the U.S. economy — at least, not yet.
The head of the world’s largest publicly traded oil company said that in 2008, when oil surged to near $150 per barrel, Americans didn’t change their driving and spending habits until gasoline prices topped $4 per gallon. Gas peaked at $4.11 in July of that year.
“I don’t know if that tip-over is still at the same $4 level or not,” Tillerson told reporters at the New York Stock Exchange. “We’ll see.”
Oil is now about $104 per barrel after rising more than 20 percent over three weeks because of civil unrest in Libya. Tillerson hasn’t seen any reduction in the demand for fuel from consumers or businesses.
The national average for gas has increased 40 cents to $3.52 per gallon at the same time.