Retail Sales Up A Mild 0.2% In December

Retail sales rose again last month–the ninth consecutive month of higher spending. But December’s advance was the slowest since September. The headline figure was pulled down by a sizable slump in auto sales. Excluding motor vehicles, retail spending advanced 0.7% in December over the previous month. Looking past the monthly noise, the broad trend via the year-over-year comparison reveals that moderate growth prevails.

For perspective, let’s start with the monthly numbers. As the first chart shows, December spending turned sluggish vs. October and November. Excluding gasoline sales, retail sales posted the slowest monthly advance since March.

Turning to the annual view, however, suggests that nothing much has changed for retail spending. Consumption through December was higher by 4.1%, a touch lower than November’s 4.2% gain. It’s fair to say that retail spending remains stable at just over the 4% mark. That’s near the lower end of the annual rates of change we’ve seen in recent years and so there’s minimal room for disappointment going forward. But for now, the trend still looks mildly encouraging.

The bottom line: consumer spending isn’t a problem for the economy at this point. By contrast, the income side of personal finances looks a bit wobbly, as I discussed yesterday.

Ultimately, personal spending and income are bound at the hip. In the grand scheme of economic indicators, the tight connection between changes in one vs. the other is second to none in the land of highly correlated variables across, say, rolling one-year periods. With that in mind, today’s retail sales report implies that income-related stress is still minimal. If income suffers in the months ahead, the blowback will show up in various measures of consumer spending, but there’s no major sign of distress in the data du jour.

On that note, we’ll know more when the government publishes the December personal income data on January 31. Meantime, the broad trend for retail spending still looks mildly encouraging.