The puzzle of rising retail sales and falling consumer confidence

consumer confidence

New reports on retail sales and consumer confidence present conflicting data until one reads between the lines. Image: CC Svadifari/Flickr

Retail sales and consumer confidence are key economic indicators closely watched by economists and investors. People often assume retail sales and consumer confidence would rise and fall in tandem. But separate reports released Friday show a strong 2010 retail sales trend followed by declining consumer confidence in January.

Retail sales surge in 2010

Retail sales in the U.S. increased at a greater rate in 2010 than in any year since 1999, according to the Commerce Department. From 2009 to 2010, U.S. retail sales increased 6.8 percent, the strongest growth since an 8.2 percent surge in 1999. December retail sales rose for the sixth month in a row, increasing 0.6 percent to $380.9 billion after rising 0.8 percent in November. Despite the holiday shopping season, December’s gain was less than expected, largely due to harsh winter weather. Department store sales dropped 1.9 percent, the steepest decline in two years. But online sales rose 2.6 percent month-over-month to ensure an overall monthly gain.

Consumer confidence a fickle index

Despite the strong retail sales trend, consumer confidence in January declined unexpectedly. The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer confidence index for January fell to 72.7 from 74.5 in December. A Bloomberg News survey of economists predicted a bump in the consumer confidence index to 75.5. Analysts are saying rising gas and energy prices, combined with the snail’s pace of job creation are to blame. Unemployment fell to 9.4 percent in December, but at the present rate of economic growth, the labor market will take years to recover. Higher gas prices increased sales at gas stations 1.6 percent last month. Energy prices rose 4.6 percent in December.

Data bode well for consumer spending

Consumer confidence has dropped so far this month, but economists say the consumer expectations index is a more accurate economic indicator. The consumer expectations index looks at how people feel about what their finances will look like six months down the road. The Commerce Department reports that it increased to 68.2, the highest mark since last June. The strengthening consumer expectations index bodes well for consumer spending, the lion’s share of U.S. economic output. Although recent reports offer conflicting information, the trend in retail sales appears strong enough to drive economic recovery, if not employment.



Financial Times

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