What Do Slowing Retail Sales Mean?

Popular Economics Weekly

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Graph: Econoday

Retail sales are slowing this fall, yet consumers’ confidence is at an all-time high. Why are consumers buying less and saving more this season? It could be higher interest rates, as the Fed has raised short term rates 5 times, already, so that the Prime rate that determines credit card debt is now 5 percent when it was 4.25 percent one year ago.

Or, they see this recovery from the Greatest Recession since the Great Depression as not that impressive. August retail sales barely managed a 0.1 percent monthly gain as tracked in the blue column of Econoday’s graph. Retail sales are only about 1/3 of total consumer spending which are mostly services. Nevertheless, August’s results are pointing to slowing for total consumer spending as tracked in the green bars and which will be posted at month end, when third-quarter GDP numbers are first released.

Wages are rising mostly for just the top one percent of income earners, according to Thomas Piketty, who should win the Nobel Prize in economics this year for his research on the real and growing income disparities in western countries. The U.S. is at the bottom of developed countries, because other developed countries offer far more in benefits; such as universal health care, paid maternity leave, and higher minimum wages that offset the income disparities.

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His best-seller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2014, raised the curtain on the rising wealth of the one percent since 1980 due to their ownership of capital, the means of production, as described by Nobelist Paul Krugman in the New York Review of Books.

“Capital still matters; at the very highest reaches of society, income from capital still exceeds income from wages, salaries, and bonuses. Piketty estimates that the increased inequality of capital income accounts for about a third of the overall rise in US inequality. But wage income at the top has also surged. Real wages for most US workers have increased little if at all since the early 1970s, but wages for the top one percent of earners have risen 165 percent, and wages for the top 0.1 percent have risen 362 percent.”

Then why are consumers so optimistic? The University of Michigan sentiment survey rose to 100.8 from 96.2 in July for the strongest showing since March this year, as well as since 2004. It has to be the ‘goldilocks’ growth consumers and employers are experiencing at present.

Economic growth is neither too hot nor too cold, as I said last week. Both retail CPI and wholesale PPI inflation indexes have been falling (i.e., prices not too hot), while it has become easier to find jobs with higher salaries (i.e., job market not too cold).

It does look like American consumers feel we are in a sweet spot, even though costs are now rising due to the new tariffs. Maybe it’s one last fling before the inevitable downturn, when interest rates continue to rise and consumers can buy no more. But who knows when that will happen?

Harlan Green © 2018

Follow Harlan Green on Twitter: https://twitter.com/HarlanGreen

About populareconomicsblog

Harlan Green is editor/publisher of PopularEconomics.com, and content provider of 3 weekly columns to various blogs--Popular Economics Weekly and The Huffington Post
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