Economy Watch: Retail Sales, Consumer Sentiment

Americans had an itch to buy more in August, according to the Census Bureau, while the Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index rose 2.1 points from the end of August to come in at 84.6 in mid-September.

Americans had an itch to buy more in August, according to the Census Bureau on Friday. The bureau reported that U.S. retail and food services sales last month, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday differences but not for price changes, were up 0.6 percent from July and up 5 percent from August 2013. The June-to-July 2014 percent change was revised from unchanged to an increase of 0.3 percent.

Most retailers had a good month. Building material and garden supply dealers enjoyed a month-over-month hike in sales of 1.4 percent, while auto dealers saw a 1.5 percent increase. Furniture and electronics retailers both experienced sales growth of 0.7 percent for the month, and sporting goods purveyors saw an uptick of 0.9 percent. There were a few losers for the month, such as gas stations (down 0.8 percent, mainly because of dropping prices), and that Charlie Brown sector of the retail world, department stores, which saw sales fall 0.4 percent.

Unlike some other metrics, retail sales have more-or-less recovered to their pre-recession levels, at least those of the pre-recession 2000s, when annual increases each month were between 4 and 6 percent most of the time (leaving out gasoline, the price of which jumps around like fleas on a hot plate). There was a sharp drop in sales during the recession, but since 2011 annual increases in retail sales have been back to their 2000s level.

Consumer Sentiment Ticks Upward in September

And they may continue to rise. The Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index increased 2.1 points from the end of August to come in at 84.6 in mid-September, according to those organizations on Friday. At mid-August, the index was 79.2, which was the result of an unexpected dip.

The overall gain was powered by the index’s expectations component, which rose from 71.3 at the end of August to 75.6 in mid- September and well up from 66.2 in mid-August. On the other hand, the index’s current conditions component dropped to 98.5 for mid-September, compared with 99.8 at the end of August and 99.6 in mid-August. Still, rising expectations tend to point to positive consumer sentiment in the outlook for jobs and income.

Though the index is higher than it was a few years ago, consumer sentiment hasn’t yet recovered from the heady days of the mid- to late 1980s, most of the 1990s and the boom years of the 2000s, before the slump in 2008. Historically, the highest consumer sentiment ever reached was in the late ’90s, a time of an expanding economy and contracting national debt, when sentiment occasionally reached 110. Even the bubble 2000s and the go-go ’80s weren’t that optimistic, with the index hovering between 90 and 100 most of the time.

Wall Street ended the week on a negative note, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average off 61.49 points, or 0.36 percent. The S&P 500 lost 0.6 percent and the Nasdaq declined 0.53 percent.