Earlier this month, Retail Sales missed expectations for the 3rd month in a row, essentially flat on the month. As Doug Short rhetorically asks 'how much insight into the US economy does the nominal retail sales report offer?' With the release of the CPI data, we can judge this in 'real' terms (adjusted for inflation and against the backdrop of our growing population)... and the picture is anything but healthy.
The "Real" Retail Story: The Consumer Economy Remains at a Recessionary Level
How much insight into the US economy does the nominal retail sales report offer? The next chart gives us a perspective on the extent to which this indicator is skewed by inflation and population growth. The nominal sales number shows a cumulative growth of 168.0% since the beginning of this series. Adjust for population growth and the cumulative number drops to 114.7%. And when we adjust for both population growth and inflation, retail sales are up only 24.8% over the past two-plus decades. With this adjustment, we're now at a level we first reached in September 2004.
Let's continue in the same vein. The charts below give us a rather different view of the U.S. retail economy and the long-term behavior of the consumer. The sales numbers are adjusted for population growth and inflation. For the population data I've used the Bureau of Economic Analysis mid-month series available from the St. Louis FRED with a linear extrapolation for the latest month. Inflation is based on the latest Consumer Price Index. I've used the seasonally adjusted CPI as a best match for the seasonally adjusted retail sales data. The latest retail sales with the dual adjustment declined 0.1% month-over-month, and the adjusted data is only up 0.9% year-over-year.
Consider: Since January 1992, the U.S. population has grown about 25% while the dollar has lost about 42% of its purchasing power to inflation. Retail sales have been recovering since the trough in 2009. But the "real" consumer economy, adjusted for population growth is 3.9% below its all-time high in January 2006.
As I mentioned at the outset, nominal month-over-month retail sales were up 0.04%. Let's now examine Core Retail Sales, a version that excludes auto purchases.
By this analysis, adjusted Core Retail Sales were down 0.1% in July from the previous month, up only 0.4% year-over-year and down 1.9% from its record high in November 2007.
The Great Recession of the Financial Crisis is behind us, a close analysis of the adjusted data suggests that the recovery has been frustratingly slow. The reality is that, in "real" terms — adjusted for population growth and inflation — consumer sales remain below the level we saw at the peak before the last recession.