Retail Sales See Healthy Uptick; Federal Deficit Still Dropping

Retail and food services sales increased by 3.8 percent in March year over year. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the budget deficit in fiscal 2014 will be nearly a third less than in 2013.

The Census Bureau reported on Monday that retail and food services sales for March, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences — but not for price changes – came in at $433.9 billion, an increase of 1.1 percent from February. The March 2014 numbers were also 3.8 percent above March 2013, and the January 2014 to February 2014 percentage change was revised from a gain of 0.3 percent to one of 0.7 percent

Major winning categories for the month were car and car parts dealers, up 3.1 percent, as well as general merchandise (Walmart and its ilk), up 1.9 percent; building supplies and garden equipment, up 1.8 percent; and nonstore retailers, up 1.7 percent. Restaurants and bars didn’t do too badly, either, gaining 1.1 percent for the month. Sales at electronics stores were off 1.6 percent in March, while gas station sales dropped 1.3 percent, mainly because of price fluctuations.

Year over year, auto and other motor vehicle dealers scored an increase of 9.5 percent in March 2014. Nonstore retailers were up 7.8 percent from last year, and health and personal care stores saw sales grow 5.2 percent compared with 2013. Department stores lost 3.4 percent of their sales since last year, while gas station sales were down 3.3 percent.

Federal Deficit Still Dropping 

The Congressional Budget Office released its updated estimates for the federal budget deficit on Monday. CBO now estimates that if the current laws that govern federal taxes and spending do not change (considering the state of Congress, that might be a reasonable short-term assumption), the budget deficit in fiscal 2014 will be $492 billion. Relative to the size of the economy, the FY14 deficit—at 2.8 percent of GDP—will be nearly a third less than the $680 billion shortfall in fiscal 2013, which was equal to 4.1 percent of GDP.

This will also be the fifth consecutive year in which the deficit has declined as a share of GDP, since peaking at 9.8 percent in 2009 during the worst of the recession. CBO’s latest estimate of the deficit for this year is $23 billion less than its February estimate, mostly because the agency now anticipates lower outlays for various programs and net interest payments. The projected cumulative deficit from 2015 through 2024 is $286 billion less than it was in February.

Deficits will be below 3 percent of GDP until fiscal 2018, predicts CBO, but won’t stay that small indefinitely (again, assuming no changes in the law). Between 2015 and 2024, annual budget shortfalls are projected to rise again—from a low of $469 billion in 2015 to about $1 trillion from 2022 through 2024—mainly because of the aging population, rising health care costs, and growing interest payments on federal debt.

Wall Street bounced upward on the retail news on Monday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average up 146.49 points, or 0.91 percent, almost exactly erasing Friday’s loss. The S&P 500 gained 0.82 percent and the Nasdaq advanced 0.57 percent.