Retail surprise?

UPDATE: the Big Picture already beat me to this post. The bastard. Go there for his take on the affair also.

Surprising to whom, I wonder.

Retail sales in the U.S. unexpectedly rose in January, easing concern that the world’s largest economy has already slipped into a recession.

The 0.3 percent increase was led by spending on autos, clothes and gasoline, the Commerce Department said today in Washington. The figure followed a 0.4 percent decrease the previous month. Purchases excluding automobiles and gasoline were unchanged.

“Today’s report will diminish recession anxieties, but it doesn’t dispel them altogether,” said Richard DeKaser, chief economist at National City Corp. in Cleveland, who accurately forecast the sales gain. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis President William Poole said yesterday “the best bet” is the U.S. will avoid a recession.

A) Is this volume, is it revenue, what are retail sales? Previously we’ve seen this, discussing volume, and the volume has been on steeply-discounted goods at discount stores. This could very well (and, most likely, will) be the same – meaning there’s no ‘there’ here.

B) This is more likely than not to be inflation-driven, either (i) because prices are up, or (ii) because people expect prices to go up even further, so tomorrow’s consumers are entering today’s markets, trying to save a bit of money (the article specifically mentions gasoline and its appreciating prices at bowsers across the country)

C) This is according to Commerce department. The department whose job it is to sell us the economy, and a department in an administration known for selling many bad goods under fake bills, across the board. Which gets us back to part A).

Am I a cynic and a pessimist? No – this counts merely has having pulled-wool-proof eyes. When oh when will we learn not to believe the hype? Back at Bloomberg:

Department-store sales dropped 1.1 percent. Stores selling building materials showed a 1.7 percent decrease in sales, after falling 2.5 percent. Sales also fell at electronics, appliance and sporting goods stores.

Excluding autos, gasoline and building materials, the retail group the government uses to calculate gross domestic product figures for consumer spending, sales rose 0.2 percent, after a 0.1 percent decrease the prior month. The government uses data from other sources to calculate the contribution from the three categories excluded.

Today’s Commerce Department report on retail sales also runs counter to industry figures that show January sales fell at stores from Target to Nordstrom Inc. even as some retailers slashed prices by as much as 75 percent. Sales at stores open at least a year rose 0.5 percent from a year earlier, the worst January since 1970, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers.

D) Month-by-month data isn’t all that relevant. So what if January sales did increase .3% on December sales – by what percentage have previous Januaries out-done their Decembers? That’s the yard-stick.

Popping over to the Census Bureau:

retail sales

Very non-sexy graphics, I’m afraid. What does it mean? Nothing, really. January’s CPI figures are due February 20th. PPI figures too, probably – although December’s were down which, in a soft economy, may also not mean much.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not poo-pooing potentially good news. We’ve already seen only recently, however, how foolish it is to try to capture the macroeconomy in real-time. I don’t know why we persist.

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