Retail sales slumped for the second straight month in January, falling 0.8% vs. the previous month. The decline is well below the 0.5% drop anticipated in the consensus forecast (Econoday.com) and far worse than the slight gain that my econometric modeling implied. But the weakness in headline spending may have more bark than bite due to the ongoing tumble in the dollar value of gasoline sales. In fact, when you look at the year-over-year trend for retail sales ex-gasoline, consumption’s rate of increase continues to improve.
Stripping out gasoline reveals that retail spending jumped 6.6% last month vs. the year-earlier level. That’s the strongest annual increase in four years. The effect of falling gasoline sales in dollar terms is clear, however, when we look at headline spending, which is ahead by only half as much—3.3% in January compared with the year-earlier figure.
Focusing on the monthly comparisons offers a darker perspective, even when ignoring gasoline. Retail ex-gas was flat in January, following a 0.2% monthly dip in the previous December. But keep in mind that core retail spending, which ignores gasoline along with autos, building materials and food services, inched higher in January by 0.1%. That follows a revised 0.3% rise for December’s core spending data, which is considered a proxy for the consumer spending estimate that’s published in the quarterly GDP reports.
The recent weakness in the monthly comparisons for the headline retail data would be far more worrisome if the labor market was stumbling, but that’s not the case. In fact, growth has picked up in nonfarm payrolls in recent months, and even wage growth showed signs of strength in the latest report from the Labor Department. Consider too that recession risk remains quite low, based on recent analysis of the broad macro trend. When you also consider that the sharp decline in energy costs lately boosts disposable income for households, the soft numbers in the headline retail data in the last two months looks like noise.