Retail Sales Surge While Consumers Pay Down Debt

Popular Economics Weekly


U.S. retail sales rebounded sharply in October as purchases of motor vehicles and building materials surged, likely driven by rebuilding efforts in areas devastated by Hurricane Florence.

CBS News reports an economic consulting firm says Hurricane Florence may result in between $17 billion and $22 billion in lost economic output and property damage. That would put Florence in the Top 10 of costliest hurricanes to hit the U.S.

The Commerce Department said last Thursday retail sales increased 0.8 percent as households also bought more electronics and appliances. September sales were revised down, sales slipping 0.1 percent instead of nudging up 0.1 percent as previously reported; the month Hurricane Florence made landfall.

Autos were very strong in October, rising 1.1 percent following several months of weakness. Building materials were up nearly as much as autos, up 1.0 percent in what is a good indication for residential investment, said Econoday. Gasoline sales jumped 3.5 percent in the month though this reading for November due very likely fluctuating oil prices, which have been declining of late.



But consumers are spending less overall, as consumer credit slowed more than expected to just $10.9 billion in September, below Econoday’s consensus range and less than half of the upwardly revised $22.9 billion August increase. Growth slowed in nonrevolving credit, which rose $11.2 billion in September versus $18.3 billion previously, while growth in revolving credit stalled completely and posted a marginal decline of $0.3 billion. Gains in nonrevolving credit reflect vehicle financing and student loans while gains in revolving credit reflect credit-card debt. 


St Louis FRED

Consumers are paying down their overall debt, in other words. “Household net worth just hit $107 trillion and in relative terms it is at an all-time high of 5.23x nominal GDP. What is significant about this is it is coming during a cycle that has been characterized by household de-leveraging,” said economists from RBC Capital Markets in a MarketWatch interview.

“It took bubbles of epic proportions in the past to boost net worth/GDP significantly (tech, housing). This time around we have a household balance sheet where liabilities relative to net worth are sitting at a 33-year low. Pristine balance sheets coupled with significant momentum from tight labor markets (firming wage growth) and tax reform (firming after-tax income) puts the consumer in a position to continue carrying this cycle for a while,” said RBC.

So how long does the second-longest business cycle, now in its 10th year, last? That’s the question on everyone’s mind. The 10-yr Treasury bond yield just plunged to 3.05 percent, flattening the so-called yield curve once again.

So if the Fed keeps raising short term rates as promised, it could seriously compromise growth next year by restricting credit and so consumer spending that makes up two-thirds of economic activity.

Harlan Green © 2018

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About populareconomicsblog

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