Connect the Retail Sales Dots

The usually astute WSJ blows a front page story on yesterday’s retail sales data. Actually, you can asign 60% of the blame to whoever came up with the headline, leaving the writer only 40% blameworthy — he gets many (but by no means all) of the details correct.

"Consumers went on a postholiday shopping spree in January, a strong sign of economic vigor that increases the likelihood the Federal Reserve will keep raising short-term interest rates.

The Commerce Department said yesterday that retail sales surged a seasonally adjusted 2.3% in January from December, largely because of gift-card redemptions and abnormally mild winter weather. The January jump followed a tepid 0.4% rise in December. January sales were up 8.8% from a year earlier." (emphasis added)

That is dead on. Recall my prior perspectives on the holiday retail season as so very dependent on gas prices. (Although December 2005 was revised downwards) Fuel costs have moderated, and we had a fair (not great) holiday season, right within my 3-4% range. 

However, the writer goes astray here:

"Coming after an earlier report that employers added nearly 200,000 jobs in January and pushed the unemployment rate down to 4.7%, the retail-sales report was cheered as evidence that the economy has roared back from a fourth-quarter lull."

Econom_20060214221642
My divergement from the standard reporting is based on their fundamental misunderstanding of how BLS reports data, and what it actually means: Citing the the January sales data as a sign of hiring is simply a fundamental misunderstanding of what seasonal adjustments are. In actual numbers, the economy lost 2.625m jobs in January. When the BLS runs the data through their meat grinder, they seasonally adjust them them to a +193k. I have no problem with that, as it makes sense for BLS to present the seasonal adjustments this way. (You can see more details on the NFP and Unemployment data here). 

However, financial reporters should be savvier, and realize that 193k jobs were no more created in January then were Enrons’ profits created in Q1 2000.  Its an accounting adjustment (Only Enron’s were fraudulent, while the BLS data is real — just seasonally adjusted). Further, the unemployment rate drop has been fully explained as a drop in the Labor Participation Rate, and note an actual decrease in the number of people looking for work.

But note how putting those two adjusted data points together creates a very false read of the strength of the economy. Its an awesome sucker play, and helps set up the eventual top.

Back to the Journal:

"Excluding the 2.9% increase in sales of motor vehicles and parts and a 5.5% rise in gasoline-station sales driven by higher pump prices, the remainder of January retail sales — everything from department stores to bars — were up 1.8% from December, when such sales rose just 0.3%."

Gas sales are hardly signs of economic strength, nor is Detroit giving away cars at cost. Month over month, the gain was less than 2% — easily explained by a big gift-card season, and the abnormally mild winter weather.

Further, the WSJ’s Justin Lahart counsels us to consider the seasonal adjustments to gift cards. That’s right, not unlike NFP for January, the seasonal adjustments made in January exaggerate the actual data. (Note that this adjustment predates the rise of gift cards as a Janaury phenomenon:

"The gift-card effect may be exaggerated by "seasonal adjustments" made by the Commerce Department. These adjustments, meant to smooth out monthly sales data, assume January’s sales will be paltry next to December’s. As a result, a small bump to January’s sales level could be magnified in the seasonally adjusted numbers that get reported."

Surprisingly, the person counseling the most restraint about these numbers is Rosalind Wells, chief economist at the National Retail Federation:

"Ms. Wells of the retail federation and other economists cautioned that two primary drivers of January’s sales growth — balmy weather and gift-card purchases — will likely evaporate this month, particularly after a blizzard last weekend snowed in consumers throughout the Northeast. Discount chain Target Corp. yesterday said colder weather will hurt February sales and that it now expects sales of stores open more than a year to climb 2.5% to 3.5% in February, down from its previous prediction of 2.5% to 4.5% growth.

The January bounce was "a one-month shot," Ms. Wells said. "We’re likely to see weak February sales because of the blizzards in the Northeast, and then generally I think the economy is going to slow as the year goes on."

Take this Retail Sales data, tie it into the recent Account Deficit numbers, ands its not to hard to figure out why the Savings Rate is null.

Obviously, I am talking my own beliefs — but I am also trying to counter the widespread misread of the data.

>

UPDATE: February 15 2006 9:47am

 The NYT is no better:

But few analysts now fear that consumer spending will fall off a cliff. Job
gains and wage growth, typically the leading factor in consumer behavior, appear
to be on an upward trajectory after their post-Katrina sluggishness of last
fall. The economy added 193,000 jobs in January; wages rose 0.4 percent; and the
unemployment rate dropped to 4.7 percent, its lowest level in four and a half
years.

"The deep fundamentals, the personal income numbers, are healthy," said
Gregory Miller, chief economist at SunTrust Bank in Atlanta.

With growth picking up again, economists now expect the Federal Reserve to
increase its benchmark short-term interest rate, currently at 4.5 percent, at
least once but possibly twice more over the next few months before it brings its
tightening cycle to an close. They will be paying particularly close attention
today and tomorrow to the Fed’s new chairman, Ben
S. Bernanke
, who is scheduled to testify to Congress for the first time
since replacing Alan
Greenspan
.

>

Sources:
Retail Sales Surge 2.3%, Underlining Economy’s Health
Data Help Dow Industrials Jump 1.3% to Top 11000; Another Rate Increase Likely
CHRISTOPHER CONKEY
WSJ, February 15, 2006; Page A1
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113992358017773481.html

Buying Power
Justin Lahart
WSJ, February 14, 2006; Page C1
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113988074277473007.html

U.S. Trade Deficit Ballooned To a Record in 2005
GREG HITT and MU
February 11, 2006; Page A1
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB113957739134570709.html

 What Fuel Bills? U.S. Consumers Still Spending
VIKAS BAJAJ and MICHAEL BARBARO
NYT, February 15, 2006
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/15/business/15retail.html

Category: Data Analysis, Economy, Federal Reserve, Retail

Glitch

Category: Weblogs

Lowry’s Paul Desmond

Category: Technical Analysis

Covering the Gold Short

Category: Commodities, Trading

What I learned over the past few weeks

Category: Psychology

Are Bears really more rigorous than Bulls?

Category: Economy, Investing, Markets, Psychology, Technical Analysis

Does GM Hedge?

Category: Commodities, Corporate Management, Earnings

A Better Sentiment Measure: DrKW’s Fear & Greed Index

Small World: On Saturday, I mentioned problems with Citibank’s Panic/Euphoria sentiment measure. Then, I discussed the work of James Montier of Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW) yesterday, (Seven Sins of Fund Management). This was the first time I ever mentioned him. By coincidence, I read about a Fear/Greed indicator last night from the very same James…Read More

Category: Investing, Markets, Psychology

Weekend Linkfest (Nor’Easter Version)

Category: Weblogs

Guide to Winning Portfolios

Category: Investing