Following three slow months, retail sales jumped 1.1% in March. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Retail sales increased 1.1% last month… the reading was the best monthly gain since September 2012”. Strong retail sales, which are an important piece of U.S. consumer spending, could be an indication of accelerating economic growth. The healthy pickup in consumer spending suggests that weaker spending in recent months was an outlier likely due to severe winter weather.
The automotive component of retail sales led the rise with an increase of 3.1%, which reflects a significant jump in new vehicle sales. According to the Wall Street Journal, “March auto sales, as measured in dollars, rose 3.1% from the prior month. That was the best gain in a year and a half”. Purchasing a new vehicle can be a big investment. Thus, many households make use of auto loans. As a result, the increase in auto sales might also reflect improvements in private credit markets. The availability of credit plays a central role in the booms and busts of business cycles.
In addition to auto sales, other components of retail sales were also solid. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Spending also improved at general merchandise stores, restaurants and nonstore retailers, which includes online shopping… Excluding automotive purchases, sales advanced 0.7% in March, above the forecast 0.4% gain”. Retail sales beat expectations even without including the large contribution by auto sales. I think it is good that the surge in retail sales were well distributed among several different areas rather than being highly concentrated in one (i.e. auto sales). The strong retail sales in March helped restore my confidence in the economic recovery following the weaker data in December and January. The severe winter weather seems to have caused December and January to be outliers among the stronger overall trend in consumer spending.
Retail sales are meaningful component of consumer spending, which is a significant piece of gross domestic product (GDP). According to the Wall Street Journal, “Consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic output. As such, expectations for stronger economic growth this year are largely pinned to shoppers’ wallets”. Due to strong retail sales in March, some economists have raised their projections for GDP growth in the second quarter. Consumer spending is a pro-cyclical component of GDP, which means it is positively correlated with GDP. If consumer spending picks up, then we should expect GDP to follow.
Another good sign for the U.S. economy is that producer prices increased 0.5% in March, which might predict a rise in U.S. inflation. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The producer-price index for final demand, which measures changes in the prices businesses receive for their goods and services, rose a seasonally adjusted 0.5% from February”. Although the producer-price index (PPI) is not the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation, the PPI is still a useful gauge of U.S. inflation. Considering the prolonged period of low inflation, I welcome the increase in the PPI and believe it might be a good sign for the U.S. economy. Furthermore, the 0.5% increase is a noticeable change as it is the largest gain in a single month since January 2010.
Not only does rising prices indicate inflation, it also reflects increasing demand. The increase in demand can also be seen in the strong March retail sales. I think the March employment report, which showed a hiring rebound after the winter slowdown, contributed to the rise in the PPI and the jump in retail sales. When you have a job you are able to spend more and increase your demand, which pushes up prices. The labor market is incredibly important and I completely agree with Janet Yellen’s emphasis on promoting job growth. A healthy labor market is an indispensable component of economic growth.