Spike in Retail Sales Contradicts Consumer Gloom

Spending rose 1.1 percent month-over-month, the largest gain since early this year, but the Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment survey underscored doubts about the economy.

October 17, 2011
By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Apparently Americans had enough dispiriting news over the summer, and decided to go shopping in September. That’s one interpretation of the month’s retail sales that were released by the U.S. Department of Commerce on Friday. Another, more hopeful analysis is that the economy isn’t quite as close to the edge of a double-dip recession as is generally feared.

According to Commerce, spending rose 1.1 percent month-over-month, the largest gain since early this year. Leading the way were automotive sales, which grew 3.6 percent.  Even without car sales, however, the monthly increase was 0.6 percent, buoyed by clothing and even furniture, which has been a sickly market segment for quite some time. August’s monthly figures were also revised upward to show a 0.3 percent increase, up from zero.

Commerce reported separately on Friday that business inventories expanded by 0.5 percent in August. Total inventories rose to $1.53 trillion, a 10.5 percent increase from August 2010. This trend may offer another glimmer of hope that the U.S. economy is a little better than it seems, since businesses are voting with their balance sheets to increase inventories for the coming months.

Consumer Sentiment Down Again

Despite spending more in September, consumers are still discouraged about the economy, according to the Reuters/University of Michigan’s mid-October consumer sentiment survey, which was released on Friday. The index dropped to 57.5 percent from the 59.4 reading recorded in late September. That, in turn, followed a 57.8 score in mid-September and a 55.7 rating at the end of August.

In a telling result, the expectations half of the index is weighing down the overall consumer confidence score. The expectations slipped 2.4 points from the end of September, landing at 47.0. Consumer assessment of current conditions rates much higher—73.8 in the mid-October survey—but that score still reflects a 1.1 point-decline.

These results raise an intriguing question: what accounts for thedisconnect between consumer sentiment and the strong retail figures for September? Perhaps one set of results is a fluke. Or it could simply be that millions of Americans bombarded by an nending stream of bad news decided to forget their troubles for a while and hit the mall.

G-20 Makes Promises, Protesters Turns Up Volume

The G-20 met over the weekend in Paris and then issued a communique that said they “stand ready” to provide money to European banks to tamp down the euro-zone debt crisis. The 20 nations (most developed, but also some big developing nations) also spoke of an “action plan” to spur growth and help keep the global economy from tumbling into another 2008-style panic. Presumably the plan would mean more funds for Greece, more for Euro-banks with heavy exposure to Greek debt, and more for the European Financial Stability Facility, just in case.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Europe and North America, protesters decried economic inequality, in some cases (Rome, for example) violently so. Lately the movement has taken up a “99 Percent” rallying cry, which among other things refers to the aspiration to a fairer distribution of wealth for the 99 percent of the population the protestors aim to represent. Exactly what kind of traction this movement will get in the long run remains unclear. In the short run, though, the idea is getting plenty of media attention and donations, reportedly about $300,000 and masses of food and supplies for Occupy Wall Street.

As protestors continued their vigil near the real Wall Street in Manhattan, the metaphorical Wall Street was chipper, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average gaining 166.36 points, or 1.45 percent. The S&P 500 advanced 1.74 percent and the Nasdaq was up 1.82 percent.