Retail Sales Up in February (Until The Next Revision)

The U.S. Census Bureau reported on Friday that retail sales nationwide edged up 0.3 percent between February and January, despite the snowstorms that kept a lot of people in the East home for more days than usual this winter, though perhaps there was an element of hoard-buying ahead of the storms.

March 15, 2010
By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Courtesy Flickr Creative Commons Dan4th

The U.S. Census Bureau reported on Friday that retail sales nationwide edged up 0.3 percent between February and January, despite the snowstorms that kept a lot of people in the East home for more days than usual this winter, though perhaps there was an element of hoard-buying ahead of the storms. Economists, ever the dismal sorts, had expected a drop in spending for the month.

Then again, that 0.5 percent increase in retail sales in January compared with December mostly vanished in a puff of downward revision smoke. Now the Census Bureau says that retail sales were only up 0.1 percent during the first month of 2010.

In February, “the real support came from non-auto retail sales,” Mesirow Financial chief economist Diane Swonk said in a Wall Street Journal podcast on Friday. “That said, we have to take it with a grain of salt because it was on the heels of a downward revision to January.”

Swonk further noted that consumer electronics contributed significantly to the uptick in spending in February because “pent-up demand was extremely strong.” That, or people were out in force buying new HDTVs ahead of the relatively late Super Bowl.

Consumers Mood Still Glum, But Better Than in ’09

Consumers are stuck in neutral, it seems, at least in terms of their confidence. The latest Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Survey of Consumers, a preliminary survey for mid-March released Friday, said that the overall confidence index will be 72.5 for the month, down from 73.6 in February.

That might seem like a negative portent, but actually it’s pretty close to the six-month average of confidence indexes, which is 72. It’s also better than this time last year. A year ago in March, when gloom served up with a side of doom was the order of the day, the index stood at 57.3.

So it could be that, as worried as they are about the long term, consumers are confident that the economy isn’t going to get worse in the near future. The survey is based on questioning 500 households each month on their financial conditions and attitudes about the economy.

More Mortgage Modifications, But Not Really That Many

According to the U.S. Treasury Department, more than 168,000 households received permanent mortgage modifications in February, compared with 117,000 in January and 67,000 in December. A permanent modification saves mortgage holders a median of $500 a month, or about 36 percent, noted Treasury. Another 90,000 households have modifications pending.

Though an increase, the modification numbers are still widely seen as drops in the foreclosure bucket. Bank of America, for instance, has about 1.1 million delinquent borrowers at the moment. Of that total, about 21,000 Bank of America-held mortgages have been modified, with 22,000 pending modifications.

Wall Street ended the week Friday very near flat, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average ending up 12.85 points, or 0.12 percent. The S&P 500 lost a scant 0.02 percent and the Nasdaq was down only 0.03 percent.