Retail sales rounded out their worst 3-month run since Lehman last month and even as April’s print showed the biggest sequential rise in nearly a year, sales still missed expectations affording us the opportunity to point out yet another “since Lehman” moment as retail sales haven’t missed for four consecutive months since the end of 2008. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who are paying attention because as we’re fond of pointing out, America’s “non-supervisory” employees (who make up more than three quarters of the workforce) are suffering from declining wage growth and with wage growth now an almost perfect predictor of consumer spending, one would expect retail sales to take a hit.
Of course this trend doesn’t just affect the Best Buys and Gaps of the world, it also takes its toll on hookers, liquor stores, drug dealers, and casinos and when sex, drugs, and gambling aren’t selling you can go ahead and kiss your “recovery” hopes goodbye.
With that in mind we present the following chart which shows that Andrew Zatlin’s Vice Index nearly printed in contraction territory in March and at 100, the index is dangerously close to indicating that America’s spending on “the fun stuff” (to quote Zatlin) looks set to fall.
Here’s some color from Zatlin:
Vice spending leads the way, both in terms of inclination and ability to spend. If luxury good spending is sensitive to shifts in the economic winds, vice is even more so. One thing that sets it apart from other types of consumer spending (besides being frequently illegal) is that it’s typically a cash-based transaction. You can’t buy pot with a credit card (not yet anyhow). Another distinguishing factor is that vices are not cheap. A prostitute costs almost two days of after-tax wages. Gambling in Vegas is potentially more. The consumer’s stack of money has to be a certain height before they can get on that ride. The vice economy lives and dies according to cash flow; by how much money is burning a hole in the consumer’s pocket…
The Moneyball Economics Vice Index is the first index that quantifies these forms of spending. It has been shown to accurately lead consumer spending by at least two months. Right now, it is showing evidence of subdued consumer spending over the past few months.
In fact, the Index just slipped to 100. A figure below 100 means that consumer spending is actually contracting. No doubt a lot of the recent sluggishness is weather related, but the trend is undeniable: consumers are spending less on the fun stuff, and that means more belt-tightening is about to occur.
And if you really want to know how bad it is out there, look no further than the traveling hooker indicator:
When Van Halen goes on tour, it’s to greet the fans and boost the paycheck. Similarly, when an escort goes on tour, it’s to press the flesh and get some money. Except, in the business of vice, escorts go touring because the local waters have been fished out.
There are several key selling points in the Hookernomics business model which traveling escorts hope to capitalize on:
- Novelty: “New and Improved” is a standard consumer lure, and it fits the escorting business as much as the toothpaste business.
- Limited Availability: An escort who announces that they are “visiting and in town for just a few days” is straightforward Sales 101. Create a sense of urgency and exclusiveness.
Tours are an expensive proposition (ahem) for an escort and a general pain in the ass. Travel time, hotels, transportation fees, dining out – costs add up fast. Also the tour is financially risky. There’s no guarantees of profit, which means that the alternative – staying put and fishing local waters – must be even worse. Simply put, escorts go on tour when the phones aren’t ringing enough.
As Zatlin goes on to note, it’s not just prostitution that’s slowing. Spending on gambling and alcohol fell in February as well and if you’re inclined to agree with the notion that trends in cash-based businesses are a good leading indicator when it comes to assessing where consumer spending (and thus the US economy) is headed going forward, you should expect the string of retail sales misses to continue.
Of course the punchline to the whole thing is that just like weakness in the “real” economy, depressed hooker, booze, and gambling sales are also blamed, at least in part, on the weather.
There’s a theme here. Prostitution slowed in February. Gambling slowed in February. Even drinking alcohol slowed down. According to GuestMetrics (which tracks 10,000 restaurants and bars) boozing at bars was up in January and then contracted in February. The common denominator: bad weather.