The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.
NEW YORK (
) -- U.S. Thanksgiving has become a highly ritualized holiday with a large segment of the American population. Eat turkey. Watch football. Go shopping. And then listen to the media lie about the shopping the next day.
In this respect, Thanksgiving 2011 was a carbon copy of the last several years. Turkeys have again (briefly) become an "endangered species" in the U.S., and (so-called) "Black Friday" was another crushing economic disappointment. Those who have only heard the hype from the mainstream media may be somewhat confused by this prognosis, so let's dive into the data.
"Black Friday sales rise 6.6% to record," gushed
. Sounds impressive! Or does it? It seems those tricky little scamps at Bloomberg left out one thing in their calculation: the word "inflation."
This is not some innocent oversight. As I remind readers again and again, comparing dollar-figure numbers without adjusting for inflation is utterly meaningless. It is comparing apples to oranges. Whether one is reporting retail sales or GDP figures, the only way to engage in credible analysis is to adjust for inflation in order to compare data in constant dollars.
Indeed, GDP data is exclusively reported using (supposedly) inflation-adjusted dollars. It is universally understood that failing to "deflate" GDP figures by the
prevailing rate of inflation means that the statistic no longer reports "economic growth." It merely indicates the rate of inflation. And so it is with Black Friday 2011.
When seeking reliable data for U.S. inflation, regular readers know there is only one place to go: to John Williams of
Shadowstats.com. We know this is the most reliable inflation data available for one very simple reason. John Williams calculates his inflation statistics the same way they were calculated a generation ago.
Conversely, the U.S. government has "massaged" its inflation calculation so extremely over the past 25 years that it is no longer even recognizable in relation to older calculations. Again we have a deliberate attempt to deceive. If the U.S. government genuinely believed it had come up with "a better inflation calculation," then all it had to do was plug the old data into the new formula, and then all the inflation data would be consistent.
In deliberately refusing to provide consistent inflation data, the U.S. government has been doing with its inflation data what
just did with its Black Friday reporting: intentionally leaving out a simple calculation in order to produce data which would provide a meaningful comparison.
Since Bloomberg refused to do this, I'll take the liberty of doing it for them. Shadowstats watchers know that U.S. inflation has been hovering close to 10% all this year. Therefore, to engage in a meaningful comparison of Black Friday 2011 with Black Friday 2010, we simply need to subtract the (approximate) 10% from 6.6%.
We immediately see that the large, positive number which Bloomberg was trumpeting has now turned into a negative number. What does that mean? Simple. It means Americans bought fewer goods than a year ago rather than more goods. By converting the dollar-figures into constant numbers, when we observe that Americans spent more than 3% less than last year (in "real dollars"), this directly translates into more than 3% less goods purchased.
"...shoppers paid more for goods and unleashed some pent-up demand..."
Well they certainly paid more for goods, but precisely how does buying 3% less goods "release pent-up demand", let alone reduce bloated inventories?
It cost Americans 6.6% more to buy 3% less goods. This is disastrous economic news, especially when we note that the quantity of goods being purchased by Americans in their holiday shopping has been falling every year since the Crash of '08, yet the report spun this into more of its inane "don't worry, be happy" business news. For it to refer to this data as some "record increase" in Black Friday sales was simply and intentionally dishonest.
Of equal importance, anyone following my work on the U.S. economy would have known in advance that this year's Black Friday numbers would be worse than last year's numbers -- as merely reflecting a larger, inexorable trend. As I discussed in detail in a
commentary last January following the terrible 2010 shopping season), everything is deteriorating for U.S. retailers.
The total number of Americans with jobs is falling not rising. Those with jobs have seen a steady decline in their wages for the past 40 years -- when expressed in "real dollars." It is the most obvious arithmetic that when you have less people working, all making less money that these people cannot engage in more consumption.
Those terrible numbers then translate into terrible numbers for the retailers. Less goods being sold, and those goods are being sold at a lower margin. When we had
cotton prices doubling, while the price of clothing was rising by only about 10% then obviously this means that U.S. retailers have been "eating" some of those increases in commodity prices through shrunken profit margins.
In turn, this translates into a relentless increase in first
mall vacancies and then mall bankruptcies. What turns this into a death-spiral is the reaction of the retailers themselves.
A year ago, when the U.S. government reported an anemic 0.6% (non-inflation adjusted) month-over-month increase in retail sales from November to December, it also reported that "non-store sales" (i.e. on-line sales) had risen by 2.6%. It is only on-line sales where U.S. retailers have been able to show any net-of-inflation growth in sales.
The obvious problem there is that as the entire U.S. retail sector shifts from real shopping to "virtual shopping" they require far fewer employees, far fewer stores, and far fewer malls. Then as U.S. retailers jettison millions of their own employees, this means even less consumers, even less consumer dollars, and (ultimately) far fewer U.S. retailers.
We know how far the U.S. retail sector has collapsed just by observing the tortured language which used to attempt to describe what "Black Friday" actually is:
"...Black Friday is so named because many retailers are said to become profitable then."
In fact, Black Friday got its name because U.S. retailers calculated that as a whole their sector traditionally became profitable by that time, with all operating margins from then to the end of the year representing pure profit. Even the shameless propagandists of Bloomberg no longer attempt to maintain that fiction.
The reality is that for a large (and growing) segment of the U.S. retail sector, "Black Friday" hasn't even arrived by New Year's Eve. Instead, Black Friday has acquired a new meaning for those U.S. retailers living in the real world: it is the day they realize that they are about to have another terrible year. Sadly, for more and more U.S. retailers each year it is the day they realize that this will be their last holiday shopping season.
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.