Except for Auto Dealers, Retail Sales Rise Slightly

Retail sales were down in November, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, but not as much as in October. The November drop was 1.8 percent, compared with an October drop of 2.9 percent, the worst drop on record. Still, there was a meager bright spot for retailers, except for auto dealers: take out cars and car parts, sales of which fell 1.6 percent in November, and retail sales actually rose in November by 0.3 percent. Electronics stores and sporting goods stores led the way with a 2.8 percent increase each in sales last month.Curiously, in the face of all kinds of bad news recently, consumer sentiment improved early this month, notes a survey by the University of Michigan and Reuters. The consumer sentiment index published by the two organizations rose to 59.1 in early December, up from 55.3 a month earlier. The rise was unexpected, according to the Wall Street Journal, but then again consumers who still have jobs (93.3 percent of them, after all) are noticing that prices for most everything, and especially gasoline, have become a lot more tolerable lately.That’s because commodity-price inflation has just about vanished. According to the U.S. Labor Department, its producer-price index dropped 2.2 percent in November, compared with October. Declines in energy and food prices led the way. Without those items factored in, the PPI was up a minuscule 0.1 percent. Global oil consumption–one yardstick of economic activity–has dropped for the first time in a quarter century. According to a new forecast by the International Energy Agency, the world will consumer less oil in 2008 than it did in 2007, the first time that has happened on a yearly basis since demand dropped in 1983 compared with 1982.Now that the U.S. Senate has made good on threats to not go along with the auto industry bailout, the executive branch is looking under the federal equivalent on sofa cushions for the spare change it needs to keep the industry from bankruptcy until the new administration and Congress come into play in January. The White House has perviously been disinclined to tap TARP for this purpose, but with more than half of that $700 billion still unallocated, the administration seems to be rethinking things.There’s nothing like a serious downturn to flush out some serious scams that go undetected when times are good. In what could turn out to be the biggest example of fraud in the history of Wall Street, hedge-fund manager Bernard Madoff has been charged by federal prosecutors with securities fraud. Madoff’s fund, like many others, had been hit with a wave of redemption notices lately, but unlike many others didn’t seem to have to money to cover the redemptions. Authorities say that investors with Madoff might have lost as much as $50 billion in the mother of all Ponzi schemes.