Retail Sales Surprise To The Upside

September 17, 2021

Economic Blog

Thursday, September 16, 2021

U.S. consumers shocked economists in August with their willingness to spend in the face of recent jitters over the economic outlook.

This morning, the U.S. Census Bureau released August retail sales data showing overall retail sales grew 0.7% month-over-month vs. a consensus forecast for a 0.7% drop, while retail sales ex autos and gas rose 2% month-over-month vs. a consensus forecast for no change. Auto sales remained under pressure because of supply chain bottlenecks and higher prices, accounting for the large gulf in the numbers. The big beats come on the heels of disappointing July data, which received additional negative revisions, taking a small bit of the shine off August’s numbers.

Nonetheless, the spending resilience shown in this report is receiving an overwhelmingly early positive response, as economic releases in recent weeks have generally been surprising to the downside. COVID-19’s resurgence in recent months is surely to blame for a significant portion of the lowered expectations, but consumers have also been forced to contend with rising prices, severe weather events, lukewarm payroll gains, and cuts to enhanced unemployment benefits.

“There have been several reasons to question the consumer outlook recently,” explained LPL Financial Chief Market Strategist Ryan Detrick. “And yet, the old mantra ‘never bet against the U.S. consumer’ continues to ring true. This has been a volatile series of late, but we look for the consumer to continue powering this economy well into the future.”

As seen in the LPL Chart of the Day, retail sales ticked significantly higher in August following a difficult July.

See enlarged chart.

The familiar theme of goods over services consumption seen during prior virus flare-ups is evident in this report, as well as a back-to-school boost. General merchandise stores (3.5%) and nonstore (online) retailers (5.3%) showed large monthly boosts, reversing a disappointing July. In addition, furniture and home furnishing stores rose nicely (3.7%). Meanwhile, food services and drinking places (0.0%), an in-person segment most impacted by virus caution, held steady against forecasts for a decline, while volatile electronics and appliance stores (-3.1%) showed weakness.

We continue to believe that successfully tackling Delta could set up a fourth quarter growth rebound despite many strategists increasingly turning sour on the second half of the year. Cases from this latest COVID-19 wave are starting to decline, and plentiful job openings and impressive wage gains data should prevent a major income shortfall resulting from the expiration of enhanced unemployment benefits. Consumers also still have elevated excess savings relative to history—in the neighborhood of $2 trillion. We continue to look for a resilient consumer, as well as for services spending to play catch-up vs. goods spending in coming months.



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