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Economic Watch: Retail Sales, Producer Prices Jump

December 11, 2015

By Evan Lockridge

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Both retail sales and prices at the wholesale level rose the most in months during November, according to two separate economic reports released on Friday. These will join other numbers that will be considered in a few days when the Federal Reserve considers an interest rate hike.

The 0.2% increase in retail sales from the month before follows a 0.1% gain in October, but was less than many analysts were expecting.

The November increase, the best in four months, was held back by declines in sales at gasoline stations, vehicle dealerships and building material stores.

The more closely watched “core retail sales, which excludes automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, increased 0.6%, better than many were forecasting, following an unrevised 0.2% gain in October.

The strength in these sales was broad based, with both clothing and sporting goods stores rising 0.8% and general merchandise store sales up 0.7%. Sales at non-store retailers, which includes Internet sales, rose a solid 0.6% in November, building further onto the 1.4% surge in October.

The disappointing headline sales report largely masks more positive trends in the underlying details, according to Stifel Fixed Income Chief Economist Lindsey Piegza.

“Weakness in autos and gasoline sales, thanks to a significant price reprieve, appear to be overshadowing the modest improvement in spending across a number of other key categories including electronics, apparel and general merchandise,” she says. “While consumers are far from out of the woods, continuing to face an ongoing burden of minimal income growth and still-modest employment opportunities, spenders appear willing to do what they do best: spend.”

She says with the key holiday season upon us, the report is welcome news for retailers, but also has a caution. “While we expect shoppers to take advantage of deep discounts, door busters and sales, a modest consumer is a far cry from a robust consumer, which is what we will need to see to meet the Federal Reserve’s arguably overly optimistic outlook and justify a rising rate environment from here.”

Piegza is referring to the Fed Open Market Committee meeting on Tuesday and Wednesday, in which policy makers will discuss increasing short term interest rates from near zero for the first time since 2006 and where its been since 2008.

Meantime, a separate report show prices at the wholesale level unexpectedly jumped in November, according to the Labor Department. The Producer Price Index rose 0.3% in November from the month before, almost fully erasing the 0.4% decline in October and marking the biggest increase in five months.

Excluding volatile food and energy prices, so-called core prices rose 0.3% after a 0.3% decline in October.

The upward pressure was largely concentrated in the trade services component, which jumped 1.2% following declines of 0.7% in October and 0.4% in September.

On an annual basis the overall PPI is down 1.1% in November, compared to being 1.6% lower in October. The annual increase in core prices rose to 0.5% from 0.1% between November and October.

This annual rate is well below the Fed’s overall inflation target of 2% that it has said on several occasions in needed to bump up interest rates. However, there is a feeling by some that policy makers will ignore this and center on the most positive aspects of the economy.

“With the December FOMC meeting just five days away, policymakers will take any signs, tidbits, and antidotes of positive data they can get to justify liftoff,” said Piegza. “Despite a longer-term trend of lingering disinflation, modest employment gains and still-tepid top line activity, policymakers appear comfortable with a one-off strong report here and there to justify a rate hike near-term, particularly to maintain their compliance with a longstanding ‘promise’ to raise rates by year end.”

She noted recent reports show import prices fell 0.4% in November, maintaining a near 10% decline in the annual pace of prices, suggesting the U.S. continues to import deflation from abroad.

“Coupled with a still very negative PPI and further signs of disinflation from the latest Consumer Price Index and Personal Consumption Expenditures reports, many policymakers have suggested they would like to see more evidence of rising inflation before liftoff,” Piegza said. “Thus, Chair Yellen and others willing to raise rates sooner than later are going to have to use some intense powers of persuasion to get fence-sitters on board with liftoff come the December FOMC meeting.”

However, there is an alternative view, according to Paul Ferley, assistant chief economist at RBC Economics, who says the reported increase in November retail sales is indicative of solid household spending going into the key holiday shopping period.

“Spending is benefitting from continuing solid employment gains, low energy costs and very accommodative financing conditions,” he says. “It is also consistent with real consumer spending volumes, which eliminates the impact of falling gasoline prices, rising at a robust annualized rate of 2.5% in the fourth quarter following the 3% gain in third quarter.

He is forecasting that an improving domestic economic backdrop is expected to prompt the Fed to initiate a tightening in policy at next Wednesday’s FOMC meeting.

“Our expectation is that the current fed funds target range will be raised 25 basis points to 0.25% to 0.50%,” Ferley said.

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