Weak Retail Sales Means Fed Tapering Later vs. Sooner

U.S. retail sales rose 0.4% in June and just 0.1% excluding autos, both measures well below estimates. The report raises new questions about the strength of the U.S. economy and the timing of any Federal Reserve "tapering." The data provided further evidence the U.S. economy wasn't growing very fast in the second quarter.

By Aaron Task
July 15, 2013
Yahoo! Finance

U.S. retail sales rose 0.4% in June and just 0.1% excluding autos, with both measures well below consensus estimates. The report raises new questions about the strength of the U.S. economy, the health of consumers and the timing of any Federal Reserve ‘tapering.’

First and foremost, the data provide further evidence the U.S. economy wasn’t growing very fast in the second quarter with “a very real possibility that Q2 GDP will be less than 1%” when the next revision is posted on July 31, writes Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at BTIG. “The number one takeaway from today’s report is that the consumer was a bit weaker than expected in the second quarter.”

In the above video, I discuss today’s retail sales report with Breakout’s Jeff Macke, who notes reports of the death of U.S. consumers are always premature.

“I wouldn’t write off the consumer in the U.S. ever,” Macke says. “You know the consumer will come back. If things were really falling off a cliff, I wouldn’t expect Costco’s (COST) numbers to be so good” or for The Gap (GPS) to continue to outperform.

By the same token, Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, declares “the consumer is probably in better shape than today’s report suggests,” citing the strength in auto sales as reported by the automakers. “Consumers bought a lot of cars in June, the actual number being 15.9 million,” he writes. “That’s got to mean something.”

Still, Macke notes that with Wal-Mart (WMT) and Target (TGT) no longer supplying same-store sales data the government’s retail sales data is the best indicator of the sector, however flawed.

“I don’t think the government compiles data particularly well… but this is the best we got and it ain’t so good,” he says.

Which brings us to the implications for Fed policy: The bottom line is U.S. GDP wasn’t growing very fast in the second quarter, and almost certainly slower than the 2% rate in the first quarter. As a result, the Fed’s “central tendency” for 2013 GDP growth in the 2.3% to 2.6% appears at risk, much less its 2014 projection for growth in the 3% to 5% range.

Given that, the Fed is likely to taper later rather than sooner, barring a V-shaped rebound in the third quarter. At this point, many in the financial markets are expecting Fed tapering to begin in September; recent economic trends (and the Fed’s own poor forecasting record) suggests taking the “over” on the taper timetable remains the prudent bet.

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