Good Retail Sales -- or Bad?

by: Barry Ritholtz

The initial read on Retail sales was pretty good: The Commerce Department said Retail sales increased by 1.2% over October 2007, and up a huge 6.3% from November 2006.

Year-over-year, Gasoline station sales were up 25%; nonstore retailers (i.e., heating oil) were up 10.7%.

A likely source of sales gains? Inflation.

That's confirmed by the latest data from the Producer price index [PPI] -- it jumped 3.2% in November, according to the Labor Department. This represents the biggest one-month rise since August 1973. The ante has been upped for Friday's Consumer Price Index [CPI] at 8:30 am.

How did inflation impact sales? November gasoline-station sales increased by a whopping 6.8%, reflecting the increasing costs for energy and refined fuels. PPI release showed producer prices for energy swelled a record 14.1% last month versus October. Wholesale gasoline prices increased 34.8%. Prices of raw materials, known as crude goods, rose 8.7%.

Non gasoline sales at all retailers in November was a more modest increase of 0.6%.

But even that data point is suspect.

Why? The retailers themselves.

As the WSJ reported last week:

"American consumers opened their wallets mostly on a need-to-buy basis last month, or when big sales lured them to the mall, bolstering concerns that the nation's retailers will need persistent discounting to move merchandise this holiday season.

While sales improved after two weak months, warnings from Target Inc. (NYSE:TGT) and others that business fell off sharply in the final week of November rattled many retail stocks . . .

The lackluster sales are another indicator that consumers may be slowing their spending after a multiyear binge fueled by cheap credit and a housing boom. Now, home prices are sliding in most markets, and banks have tightened lending standards."

So the question presented to you, the home viewer, is simply this: Who are you more likely to believe -- the retailers themselves, or the Commerce Department data?


Commerce Dept, NOVEMBER 2007

Producer Price Indexes - November 2007
DECEMBER 13, 2007

Retail Chains Record Mixed Sales End-of-Month Downturn Portends Holiday Worries
WSJ, December 7, 2007; Page B4

Retail Sales Suggest Economy May Be Stronger Than ExpectedWholesale Prices Surge on EnergyJEFF BATER and BRIAN BLACKSTONEWSJ, December 13, 2007 9:14 a.m.

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