Retail Sales Drop in May Shouldn't Be a Surprise

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Includes: DIA, QQQ, SPY, XRT
by: Daryl Montgomery

The U.S. government released its Retails Sales report for May this morning. Analysts expected an increase, but sales dropped 1.2%. The markets were surprised that American consumers were spending less even though the unemployment rate is stuck around 10% and credit card debt has dropped for 19 months in a row.

The expectations for higher retail sales came from the massive amounts of federal government stimulus being pumped into the economy. There is a $1.6 trillion dollar budget deficit projected for fiscal year 2010 (the deficit for 2009 was $1.42 trillion) and this money is making all the economic numbers look much better than they would otherwise. The deficit alone is approximately 11% of the official U.S. GDP number (which is grossly overstated), but still represents less than half of all federal government spending. Investors should ask themselves: Given all of this support, how weak is the U.S. consumer?

This is an important question because the U.S. has built an economy based on consumer spending, which reached 72% of GDP before the Credit Crisis. The consumer also became very over indebted in the 2000s and the saving's rate hovered around zero mid-decade. To spend more, consumers need more income and credit (the amount available from savings is limited). A jobs recovery is needed to increase consumer income and even Washington admits that that is not happening in the foreseeable future. As for credit, the big banks are borrowing from the Federal Reserve at zero percent, but are not passing the savings on to the consumer. They are also decreasing credit card lines, not increasing them. Autos are one of the only areas where cheap credit has filtered down to the consumer level.

Auto sales have also directly benefited from government programs like Cash for Clunkers. There were no special government programs active in May and auto sales fell 1.7%. The drop in retail sales was essentially across the board though. Department stores were down 1.8% and general merchandise sales decreased 1.1%. Hardware stores were really hit hard with sales falling 9.3%. The only bright spot was a 3.3% drop in gasoline sales. This took place because gas prices dropped, not because less gas was purchased. The Retail Sales numbers are not adjusted for inflation.

For some time now, the message coming out of Washington has been one of economic recovery. This has been based on economic numbers pumped up by incredible levels of stimulus. The retail sales report today and the employment numbers in general show that stimulus is not working so well this time around. The basic idea for excess government spending is that it jumpstarts the economy just as an electric jolt jumpstarts a battery. If the battery is really dead, however, no amount of electricity will bring it back to life. The same is true for stimulus in a dead economy.

Disclosure: None