Why You Should Blow Off the Retail Sales Report -- Yet Again

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- So how did that happen?

Retail sales in June climbed just 0.2% in June, the Census Bureau said today, missing just about every forecast and raising a flag about the stock market's recent advances, while underscoring the Federal Reserve's reticence about raising interest rates too early in a long-delayed recovery. But the report has so many oddities that it's likely to get revised upward when the Census reports preliminary July data next month.

The biggest piece of weird news in the report is that sales at auto and parts dealers declined by 0.3% -- not at all the expectation after auto makers had reported strong June sales earlier in the month.

The next weirdest is that sales at gasoline stations rose only 0.3%, though gas prices are relatively high. Bullish economist Joel Naroff, whose firm consults for regional banks and other clients, had expected those two categories to drive a gain of 1% or more.

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The weakness was evident in a long list of cyclical sectors where you would look for signs of an accelerating expansion.

Home-improvement store sales dropped a reported 1%, and furniture sales dipped 0.1%. Neither is a great sign for the housing and remodeling market, whose continued recovery is important to the bull case for stocks now.

And sales at bars and restaurants dipped 0.3%. About the only bright spots were clothing (+0.8%) and drugstores (+0.9%). The 0.9% climb in non-store retailing, mostly online, was a bit better than the average for the last year.

"This is a surprise and a concern," Naroff said. "Right now it looks like consumers are spending more money, but are hardly exuberant."

That's a fair analysis, but consider two points.

  • The retail sales numbers have a recent history of upward revisions. May's sales gain was revised to 0.5% from an originally estimated 0.2%, and the prior month was revised as well.
  • Core retail sales (excluding autos and gas stations) rose at a solid 0.4%. That augurs well for holiday shopping, argued Navy Federal Credit Union VP of credit cards Randy Hopper.

Mostly, I'm struck by how little I have to change from what I've written about retail sales earlier this year. Again, the report sounds like what I wrote this time in May:

"When the economy created 288,000 jobs in a month, according to the Department of Labor, and not quite two weeks later the Census Bureau says consumers slashed highly discretionary spending at restaurants and bars, it's best not to get too worked up about it. "

Amen. At best, investors should wait and see if this number is real before reading much into it.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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