KEY DATA: Retail Sales: +0.2%; Excluding Vehicles: +0.4%; Control: +0.6%/ PPI: +0.3%; Goods: -0.1%; Goods Less Food and Energy: -0.1%; Services: +0.5%
IN A NUTSHELL: “The consumer appears to be in a shopping mood and that is good news for the economy and the Fed.”
WHAT IT MEANS: We may not be shopping ‘till we drop, but we are out there spending money. Retail sales were up modestly in November if all you do is look at the headline number. But as usual, the top line is very misleading. First, declining gasoline prices led to weaker dollar sales numbers, not necessarily weaker unit sales – the average price fell by 5.3% but total sales were off only 0.8%. Once again, vehicle sales were off a little, but it is hard to make the case that people stopped going to dealerships. The November sales pace was exceeded only a handful of times over the past forty years. Meanwhile, households bought electronics and appliances, clothing, sporting goods and most merchandise in general. We shopped online and when we were out, we ate out. And if we stayed in, we ate a lot also. In other words, we spent money. Adjusting the retail sales data so they better match up with GDP personal consumption numbers, the so-called Control Group, demand increased sharply.
On the wholesale inflation front, the divide between goods and services continued in November. Goods producer prices eased a touch, but the drop was the smallest in five months. When you exclude food and energy, the decline was minimal as rising food prices offset falling energy costs. Finished consumer goods prices less energy were up not just in November, but over the year as well. That is a potential sign the downward pressure on consumer goods prices may be fading. But the real pressures remain in the services component, which is roughly two-thirds of consumption. Service producer price increases appear to be accelerating.
MARKETS AND FED POLICY IMPLICATIONS: These reports, as well as an early indication by the University of Michigan that consumer confidence may be improving, buttress the Fed’s stance that it is time to raise rates and the economy can handle it. The one major restraint to growth is lower energy prices, which is causing major adjustments in that sector. In the short-term, those cut backs are overwhelming the slow adjustment to the lower energy expenses by consumers. Households don’t seem to be spending a whole lot of the added cash flow. But really, are there many people who are not linked to the energy sector that really believe that in the long run, the economy is better off with $100/barrel for oil than $40? I suspect that most Fed members realize that the adjustments in the energy-patch may be harsh, but they will fade. Meanwhile, the added money in consumers’ pockets will eventually find its way into the economy in a very broad based manner. There is nothing in the way of a Fed rate hike on Wednesday. I suspect the statement will focus on the FOMC’s expectations that future hikes will be slow, but we already know that. Slow, by the way, seems to be every other meeting. So, the real question is, when will the economy become strong enough and inflation high enough that Fed goes every meeting? If low rates are causing economic dislocations, a slow rise doesn’t help very much. Just ask Alan Greenspan.