While the U.S. labor market has improved recently, it has yet to lead to any real acceleration in U.S. consumption.
In fact, last week, U.S. retail sales came in below expectations for a second month in a row, and U.S. consumption growth has held relatively steady at a 2% annualized rate for the past 10 quarters.
As I write in my new Market Update piece, there are four reasons why consumption is still so far below trend despite the improving labor market.
1.) Keeping the improvement in context: The job market is actually improving from a very low base.
2.) A smaller workforce: While job growth has been accelerating recently, the drop in the unemployment rate has been helped by millions of people dropping out of the work force. Today, the labor force participation rate stands at 63.7%, the lowest level since 1983.
3.) Decelerating wages: Disposable income growth has been decelerating over the past year to 3.8% year-over-year growth today from 6% in early 2011. For hourly workers, the situation is even worse. Hourly wages were up just 1.5% in January from a year earlier, the slowest rate of growth going back to 1965.
4.) Household debt: While household debt has contracted to 114% today from a peak of 130% of disposable income in 2007, it’s still well above the historic average.
This begs the question: When is consumption likely to accelerate? With real wage growth stagnant and household debt still high by historic standards, I don’t expect a significant pick up in personal spending this year. Because repairing the consumer balance sheet will likely take several more years, it’s unlikely that consumption will accelerate within the next few years.
Curiously, U.S. retail stocks seem pleasantly undisturbed by any of the above. Retailers continue to advance and are up roughly 7% year to date. This latest surge has pushed valuations up to nearly 19x trailing earnings, a 40% premium to the broader U.S. market and close to a 20-year relative valuation high.
As such, consumer discretionary stocks in general - and retailers in particular - still may prove to be disappointments this year, and I’m continuing to advocate an underweight to U.S. retailers. I find it hard to justify why investors would pay a big premium to be leveraged to the U.S. consumer.
Instead of retail, I prefer segments of the market less exposed to U.S. consumption (possible iShares solutions: S&P Global Energy Sector Index Fund (IXC), S&P Global Technology Sector Index Fund (IXN), and S&P Global Telecommunications Sector Index Fund (IXP)).
Disclosure: Author is long IXC and IXP
International investments may involve risk of capital loss from unfavorable fluctuation in currency values, from differences in generally accepted accounting principles or from economic or political instability in other nations. Narrowly focused investments typically exhibit higher volatility.