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Wednesday, October 14, 2015 9:44 AM

Autos and Restaurants Positive in Overall Weak Retail Sales Report; Last Month's Sales Revised Lower

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Retail sales came as expected in today's release, but up only 0.1%. And last month was revised lower, from a 0.2% gain down to 0.0%. Once again autos were the strong point.

Looking on the bright side, as is typically the case, Bloomberg Econoday explains it like this.

Weakness at gasoline stations, where low prices are depressing sales totals, continues to exaggerate weakness in retail sales where the headline inched only 0.1 percent higher in September. Gasoline sales fell 3.2 percent in the month, excluding which the headline looks far more respectable at plus 0.4 percent.

And there are plenty of tangible positives in the data including a third straight solid gain for motor vehicles, at plus 1.7 percent in September, and a second straight outsized gain of 0.9 percent for restaurants. Both of these are discretionary categories and point to underlying consumer strength. Clothing stores are also posting strong gains, up 0.9 percent despite negative price effects from lower import prices.

Price weakness is not only pulling down gasoline sales but also sales at food & beverage stores which fell 0.3 percent. But there are signs of consumer retracement in the September report with the general merchandise category, which is very large, down 0.1 percent, and with health & personal care stores unchanged. Building materials fell 0.3 percent with electronics & appliance stores down 0.2 percent.

Looking at adjusted year-on-year rates helps clarify the trends. Excluding gasoline stations, retail sales are up a very respectable 4.9 percent which is well above the less impressive 2.4 percent gain for total sales. Sales at gasoline stations are down a year-on-year 19.7 percent. Leading the positive side are motor vehicles, up 8.8 percent, and restaurants, up 7.9 percent -- both robust gains. Core sales, that is ex-auto ex-gas, the year-on-year rate is a moderate plus 3.8 percent for a 1 tenth decline from August.

One of the very biggest positives for the consumer right now, aside from strength in labor demand, is the weakness in pump prices, which however in this report, where dollar totals are tracked and not sales volumes, turns into a negative. Still, the headline is weak and will likely lower third-quarter GDP estimates -- but for Fed policy, because the weakness is skewed due to gas prices, the results are harder to assess and may prove neutral.
Third quarter GDP is just at 1%. Given the downward revision last month, I would expect today's report will knock a couple ticks off the expectation.

There have been other reports since the Atlanta Fed updated its model forecast, and one is coming today. so we will see.

But even if flat, is the Fed really going to hike looking at GDP of 1.0%? I highly doubt it.

This report was nowhere near neutral.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock

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