Retail sales sag for second straight month

BP Gas Station
(Sony Kassam/MEDILL)

By Sony Kassam

Retail sales in the United States showed a softer than expected decline in February, but a downward revision for sales in January could signal concerns about the economy’s growth.

The U.S. Department of Commerce said Tuesday that retail sales fell a seasonally adjusted 0.1 percent last month – a decline for the second consecutive month.

Additionally, sales in January were revised down to 0.4 percent from the previously reported 0.2 percent increase.

Declining sales often suggest a slowing economy, but recently a sustained drop in gasoline prices — rather than consumers’ cutbacks in buying — has held down retail figures.

Consumer spending drives about 70 percent of the U.S. economy, with about a third coming from retail sales, so an indication of weak sales could impact Federal Reserve policy makers’ decisions on interest rates this week.

“Two consecutive monthly declines in retail sales does focus the attention and challenges our call for ongoing moderate GDP growth this year steadied by consumer spending,” said Robert Dye, chief economist at Comerica Bank in an online report. “However, we believe that firmer energy prices and improving real estate markets this spring will support firmer nominal retail sales.”

In February, eight of 13 major retail categories waned in sales, with the largest plunge at gasoline stations, where sales dropped 4.4 percent from the previous month and 15.6 percent from a year ago.

Brian Wesbury, chief economist of First Trust Advisors wrote in an online commentary that low sales at gas stations are not necessarily harmful.

“Lower gas prices give consumers more money in their pockets, which, in spite of a narrative to the contrary, they are spending, although not all at once,” Wesbury said.

Wesbury noted restaurant and bar sales are up 0.1 percent from January and 6.4 percent from last year. Furthermore, although auto sales fell in February, he noted, they are still up 6.8 percent from a year ago. Wesbury expects “other sectors to benefit in the year ahead.”

Drops in sales include retailers that sell electronics, home furnishings, and food and beverage. Car sales slipped as well: motor vehicle and parts dealers sales slumped 0.2 percent, the same as the previous month.

However, Americans stepped up their purchases in building material and garden equipment and supplies dealers with a 1.6 percent increase from January and a 12.2 percent surge from a year ago.

Combined with a number of economic reports, Wesbury said, GDP models illustrate that real consumer spending is rising at a 2 percent to 2.5 percent annual rate in the first quarter.

“We still expect roughly 2.5 million more jobs in 2016 along with at least a modest acceleration in wage gain,” he said. “In turn, this will translate into further spending growth in the year ahead.”

Sales at gas stations in February have plunged 4.4 percent from the previous month. (Sony Kassam/MEDILL)