Was May Retail Sales Good Or The Continuation Of A Bad Trend?

When the May Retail Sales report came out I was a little puzzled. With the economy doing so poor recently was the May retail sales report a mere parlor game in economic reporting? Somebody besides me must find It amusing that 1% unadjusted growth could generate 2.7% adjusted growth. Although both Bizzyblog and Zerohedge had already posted their analysis on the May report, there were two things in the Retail Sales chart on the Zerohedge blog that caught my attention.

  1. When the Retail Sales year to year growth drops below five percent for an extended period of time, the economy is generally sick.
  2. The trend over the last two to three years is remarkably similar to conditions preceding the last two recessions.

Rather than copying Zerohedge’s chart I reproduced the Retail Sales(RSAFSNA) chart below using data from FRED since it shows the US recessions.

Since I was curious whether there was something magical about the 5% line I ran some simple statistics on the last 61 months of Retail Sales percent changes(Not Seasonally Adjusted) and found that the mean was 4.720%. Then I divided the sample into five equally sized groups based on percent change. The breakpoints for the quintiles are 2.871%, 4.136%, 5.314%, and 6.823%. For illustration purposes I assigned a grade to these values. As an example for every month in which the retail sales growth was greater than 6.823% I gave it a grade of ‘A’. It should come as no surprise that there were 12 months in the sample in which growth exceeded 6.823%. Using this analogy the grades based on the Retail Sales growth for the first five months of 2015 was ‘D’, ‘F’, ‘F’, ‘F’, and ‘F’. Obviously the May Retail Sales increase looks more like a continuation of a bad trend and does not confirm the press’s enthusiasm for a retail sales recovery. Even the 2.7% seasonally adjusted growth the press was so happy about would be an ‘F’ grade. The 2015 grades are actually worse than the first five months of 2014 which had grades of  ‘F’, ‘F’, ‘F’, ‘B’, and ‘C’. Most of the ‘D’ and ‘F’ grades occurred in the last two years and there were only two ‘B’ grades in 2014 and 2015. We have to go all the way back to July in 2013 to find an ‘A’ grade. Based on these statistics the 5% line looks like a pretty good indicator of healthy retail sales and a growing economy.

So now I am left with three questions:

  1. Has the Administration successfully transformed our consumer driven economy into a slow but not negative growth economy?
  2. Are we just one misstep from negative growth and an old fashioned recession?
  3. Since quantitative easing and zero interest rates have had less and less impact on the economy, what can the Fed do to avoid a recession in an election year?