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By the Numbers

Featuring brief segments of economic analysis from our senior economist Michael Bazdarich, PhD.

The economic analysis we previously featured in By the Numbers is now available on the Western Asset Blog. This page will no longer be updated.

Retail Sales Continue to Stumble in the Last Months Before the Deluge

This is our first By the Numbers installment since the February jobs data release on March 6. Last week was a no-information week as far as economic data was concerned, but it was pretty earth-shaking concerning our way of life and the tasks ahead of us in coming to grips with the coronavirus/COVID-19. As of March 6, COVID-19 was an oddity affecting China that we thought might have some effect here. Since then, especially in the last six days, it has morphed into a once-in-a-generation event dramatically disrupting our lives ... for who knows how long as of right now.

In the meantime, there was a data release today, with February retail sales. These showed a -0.5% decline in February, offset slightly by a +0.2% revision to the January estimate. Our control sales measure, sales excluding those at vehicle dealers, building material stores, and service stations, declined a slight -0.1%, with an offsetting +0.1% revision to January.

So, retail sales continued to be soggy in February, for the sixth straight month (see chart). As we have remarked in past installments covering retail, this sogginess doesn’t make a lot of sense, given that consumer incomes have been growing as strongly as ever and that consumer spending on services has continued to grow with no let up at all. We saw a similar "pause" in retail sales a year ago that stretched from July 2018 through February 2019, which is why the 12-month growth rate shown in the chart has held up so well.

We could further ponder the import of this retail sales pause, except that it has been overtaken by recent events. That is, the cause of this pause—be it bad data or some other fluke—vanishes in significance against the possible hit retail sales and all the other indicators now face given the widespread quarantines and work stoppages being mandated presently in order to contain COVID-19. If retail sales could fall to zero growth for six months alongside no detectable decline in consumer activity, imagine how they could fall with large proportions of the population stuck in their homes.

As dramatically as the economic data might change in coming weeks, keep in mind that the full hit to these indicators won’t be reflected until the April data to be announced two months from now. Even then, the news most likely to be driving markets and politics will be the infection counts, which we all will be watching for signs of inflection, deceleration and a topping out.

In the meantime, we expect to be here, analyzing the data announcements for what they are worth. We will try to stay well, and we hope you do the same.

Retail Sales Trend
Retail Sales Trend
Source: Census Bureau. As of 29 Feb 20. "Control" retail sales is total sales less vehicle dealers, service stations and building material stores.

Michael Bazdarich

Product Specialist/Economist

Mike brings more than 43 years of experience to his position. "By the Numbers" will address economic data releases that are pertinent to a broad range of investors.

Prior to joining the Firm in 2005, Mike ran his own consulting firm, MB Economics. He earned his PhD in Economics at the University of Chicago.

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