Mystery Of July Retail Sales "Beat" Solved: It Is All In The "Seasonal Adjustment"

Tyler Durden's picture

The July retail sales beat came as a surprise to many: an 0.8% increase (full series here) at a time when the data was supposed to grow at less than half this would surely be indicative of a potential turnaround in the US economy. Then we decided to do a quick spot check if maybe the Census Bureau had not adopted one of the BLS' worst habits: fudging seasonal adjustment factors. The reason for this is because we happened to notice that Not Seasonally Adjusted (full series here) retail sales data in July actually declined by 0.9% from $405.8 to $402 billion. Of course, if the Census Bureau was using a consistent, or at least remotely comparable July seasonal adjustment factor as it has in the past, this would make sense and we would move on. So we decided to look at what the July seasonal adjustment variance over the past decade has been. What we found would have shocked us if indeed this is not precisely what we expected: with the July seasonal adjustment factor routinely subtracting a substantial amount from the NSA number, averaging at -$5.2 billion, in 2012, for the first time this decade, the seasonal adjustment not only did not subtract, but in fact added "value" to the NSA number, resulting in a seasonally adjusted number that was $1.9 billion higher than the NSA number at $403.9 billion.

So what would have happened if instead of arbitrarily deciding to add a seasonal contribution for the first time in a decade, the Census Bureau had used the last decade average factor of $5.2 billion (not adjusted for inflation, so the end number would be far greater)? Instead of rising by 0.8% Seasonally Adjusted retail sales would have declined from $400.7 billion to $395.5 billion, or a 1.3% decline.

And that is how data is fudged.

Those curious what the model behind this now glaringly obvious seasonal adjustment fudge is, read on (source):

We use the X-12 ARIMA program to derive the factors for adjusting data for seasonal variations and, in the case of sales, for trading-day and holiday differences.


Adjustment of estimates is an approximation based on current and past experiences. Therefore the adjustments could become less precise if current competitive pressures, changes in consumer buying patterns during holiday periods, and other elements introduce significant changes in seasonal, trading-day and holiday patterns.


Each month for sales, concurrent seasonal adjustment uses all available unadjusted estimates (including the latest preliminary and advance estimates) as input to the X-12 ARIMA program. Factors derived from concurrent seasonal adjustment for sales are applied to the unadjusted advance, (one month after the preliminary) preliminary, and final (one month before the preliminary) estimates and to the previous year estimates that correspond to the advance and preliminary months.


The table Combined Seasonal, Trading-Day, and Holiday Adjustment Factors for Retail and Food Services Sales by Kinds of Business presents the combined seasonal, trading-day, and holiday adjustment factors that are used to adjust sales estimates. For kinds of business whose last observation is an advance estimate, two months of projected factors are shown. For all other kinds of business, three months of projected factors are shown. Projected factors are estimates of the factors that will be used to derive adjusted estimates when unadjusted estimates become available.


More information about the X-12 ARIMA Program is available on the Census web site at .

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Big Corked Boots's picture

must... reelect... obama...

Lies, damn lies, and statistics. All the stops are pulled out.

spastic_colon's picture

so this means QE is still coming?  See how well their baffle strategy works!  Gotta give ZH credit for doing in a few minutes what used to take the general investing public (or what's left of them) and the algo's days to interpret.

TrillionDollarBoner's picture

Great piece of research. Thanks ZH. 

'Seasonal adjustments' tweaked as necessary. What a crock of shit these data are. 

Now can everyone just wake the fuck up! 

mikla's picture

If it is a Number from the Government, do not trust it.

If it is a Number from a Publicly-traded company, do not trust it.

If it is a Number from a Market in which the Fed is active, do not trust it.

If it is a Number to settle International Trade, do not trust it.

If it is a Number quoted by any Politician, do not trust it.

If it is a Number quoted by any Economist, do not trust it.

BaBaBouy's picture

Can I ADD...


Do not Beleive the GOLD Prices Quoted. Be happy you are owning a REAL ASSET, Probably

worth North of 25K were it not for the bogus manipulations...

Be happy you can actually still buy GOLD at these prices today... Tomorrow - ???

Bananamerican's picture

"I, for one, welcome our new number-fudging overlords!"

ndotken's picture

Numbers are all bullshit nowadays man ... nothing but goddamn fucking bullshit

DeadFred's picture

The hidden moral to this story is if you are the programmer in charge of developing a seasonal adjustment algorithm don't open up the Email from someone named 'Lolita' inviting you to see her pics. After that your program will adjust things just the way your handlers want them to be adjusted.

Temporalist's picture

"the International Monetary Fund forecasts the slowest trade growth in three years."

John_Coltrane's picture

I recommend in the future that all numbers issued by the government have an "i" attached (though ZH readers have likely assumed they are imaginary already):

For example:  4 becomes 4i  (that way people will know that its an imaginary number (on the y axis of the complex plane)

Another specific example:  The BLS reported today that GDP was 1.5i %, while retail sales grew at 0.8i %. 

SmallerGovNow2's picture

Yeah Tyler is most definately on it.

Most informative site available for those that want the truth...

Plausible Deniability's picture

This is precisely why this site is my first and foremost resource to fact check the eyebrow raising "stats" and data coming out these days. Also, zerohedge got a Santelli shoutout for this piece today. I guess you guys are sort of a big deal

Plausible Deniability's picture

This is precisely why this site is my first and foremost resource to fact check the eyebrow raising "stats" and data coming out these days. Also, zerohedge got a Santelli shoutout for this piece today. I guess you guys are sort of a big deal

nathan1234's picture

Seasonal Adjusment equals extrapolating shit.

And shit is what you get from the manipulated data and from the administration

Frastric's picture

Could explain why the GDP figures are a bit more accurate with retail sales, but then GDP is fudged with all that inflation expectation stuff...

rwe2late's picture

but, but ...
this time it's different.

FL_Conservative's picture

It's the secret sauce that makes all statistics taste just right!

Ancona's picture

So......who do I call to "seasonally adjust" my checking account? I could use a few grand right now.

Flaming Ferrari's picture

I'm shocked. Data fudged...tell me it  ain't so.

Good to see Spain is getting on top of the housing crisis with another inspired policy move.

"Spanish new home VAT increases to 10%: The Spanish government has confirmed that value added tax on new homes will rise to 10% of purchase price next year, from 4%, according to PIE Magazine. Since it has already raised VAT on refurbishments to 21% from 8%, and abolished mortgage tax relief, the move adds to problems in clearing the 800,000 vacant housing overhang."

spastic_colon's picture

its not a tax is a fee....they should change it to VAF

BurningFuld's picture

The Spanish government could save themselves a lot of time enacting new legislation by simply enacting: "We are the Government give us All your Money!"

TwoJacks's picture

jeezustapdancingchrist.  can we knock it off with seasonal adjustments already and just get a report of the raw numbers?  i hate this shit

Cdad's picture cannot do that as it would not shine a good light on the current desperate, failing status quo morons in charge of destroying the US economy for the last 25 years.  And so we must fudge and that folks don't get restless and quit watching...ummm...errrr...I don't even know what anyone is watching these days...ah, forget it.  

Vince Clortho's picture

Without the Ministry of Fudging, the raw stats might cause the muppets to stampede.

Nobody For President's picture

A greenie for 'jeezustapdancingchrist'

glenlloyd's picture

garbage in garbage out....literally

Frastric's picture

This is bullish; an ACTUAL decrease in retail sales means QE is on! Stupid algos they're missing an excuse to rally the market!

DizzySailor's picture

IT is the new math: 2+2= what ever you would like it to be.

Spastica Rex's picture

The Übermensch makes his own reality.

goldencross10's picture

Obama: The Economy is recovering, we got retail sales up .8% I dont even now what that is but its going up so it must be good

Spastica Rex's picture

Goin' up.

Politicians don't say "ing."

Toolshed's picture

Wouldn't it have been a lot easier to say:

"We pulled this number out of our collective asses this year due to our bosses burning desire to be re-elected."

Peter Pan's picture

I think I would be more inclined to the believe the figures if the Census Bureau announced that Martians had landed and were doing shopping.

James-Morrison's picture

Baaa baaa baaa
--we the sheeple

slewie the pi-rat's picture

seasonal seasonings by emeril

vertexa's picture

In today's market, investor will only dump stocks in good news! today market should sell off

tuttisaluti's picture

Banana republic USA

ebworthen's picture

"Fudge Factor"

Hashish in the Brownies

Grain alcohol in the Punch Bowl

"Oh, someone didn't tell you?  Well?  Do you feel good?"

Hype Alert's picture

And again, no QE until after the election.  Smoke and mirrors until then.  Wonder when Mr. Market will figure this out?

spastic_colon's picture

Mr. Market won't......thats the genius of the BS

Vince Clortho's picture

Mr. Market passed on some time ago.

He has been replaced by some rich kids toy.

slewie the pi-rat's picture

how many "NSA"s do we have?

this one is right up there prop-wiZe: "adding value"

dey lucky dey ain't gettin taxed for that malarky!


bnbdnb's picture

The Fed puts out this number...basically, guys you need to sell off your shit so we can do QE.

whoknoz's picture

...the season is the reason...wait 'til they tell how to recalculate the height of the fiscal cliff during descent...

JR's picture

More artificial sweetener in the fudge…

The Retail Sales report and manufacturing statistics are simply measurements of inflation, not of actual production. Instead of measuring units of production, these reports all first measure the flow of sales measured in dollars.

Retail Sales “measures sales in dollars and since inflation is incorrectly measured is not adjusted appropriately. Since inflation is way understated, it overstates Retail Sales. Another flaw in this report is substitution bias, that is it only measures stores that are open over the last year and fails to account for stores that have closed…truth and transparency are not high on the list of those who control economic statistics.” (Nathan’s Economic Edge)

Disposable income is flat, construction spending bottom bouncing, credit growth remains all in student loans, July unemployment 22.9% (Shadowstats)…

LongSoupLine's picture



This country is one big manipulated pile of corporate run horseshit.

Sandy15's picture

Tired of the FED print and push stock market methods....... others are starting to see it too

TWSceptic's picture

Even if we put the fudged number aside. It's retail, not production. Meaning if retail should go up, that is nothing more than debt spending. There is no recovery.

Mr_Wonderful's picture

No volume. Market to sell off.