Retail and Manufacturing Fail to Impress: May 13 – 17

Retail and manufacturing each stumbled in April.  Here are the five things we learned from U.S. economic data released during the week ending May 17. 

#1Retail sales wobbled in April. The Census Bureau values retail and food services sales at a seasonally adjusted $513.4 billion, down 0.2 percent from March. Sales at auto dealers/parts stores slowed 1.1 percent but grew 1.8 percent at gas stations (thanks to higher prices at the pump). Net of both of these categories, core retail sales declined 0.2 percent in April and have risen a not particularly vigorous 3.2 percent over the past 12 months. During April, sales gained at department stores (+0.7 percent), restaurants/bars (+0.2 percent), sporting goods/hobby retailers (+0.2 percent), and grocery stores (+0.2 percent), but fell at retailers focused on building materials (-1.9 percent), electronics/appliances (-1.3 percent), apparel (-0.2 percent), and health/personal care (-0.2 percent).

#2Both manufacturing and overall industrial production faltered in April. The Federal Reserve estimates industrial production dropped for the third time in four months with a seasonally adjusted 0.5 percent decline in April that left the measure up a paltry 0.9 percent over the past year. Manufacturing output also contracted by 0.5 percent during the month (also its third decrease in four months) and off 0.2 percent from a year earlier. Durable goods production slumped 0.9 percent, with drops of at least two percent for motor vehicles, machinery, and electrical equipment/appliances. The output of nondurables slowed 0.1 percent. Warmer than average April weather led to a 3.5 percent reduction in utilities’ output while mining output rose 1.6 percent, thanks to increased oil and natural gas extraction and more coal mining. 

#3Housing starts had their best month in April since last summer. The Census Bureau places housing starts at a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 1.205 million units, up 5.7 percent from March but still 2.5 percent under from the pace of April 2018. Starts of single-family homes rose 6.2 percent to an annualized 854,000 units (its best month since January) while multi-family unit home starts edged up 2.3 percent to 359,000 (its best since last November). Permit data suggest modest growth over the near-term, as the rate of issued housing permits eked out a 0.6 percent gain to 1.96 million permits (which was 5.0 percent below the year-ago pace). Housing completions slowed 1.4 percent during the month to an annualized 1.312 million homes (+5.5 percent versus April 2018).

#4Homebuilders grew more optimistic about the housing market in May. The National Association of Home Builders’ Housing Market Index (HMI) increased by three points to a seasonally adjusted 66. This was the 59th consecutive month in which the HMI was above a reading of 50, indicating that a higher percentage of homebuilders saw the housing market as being “good” rather than being “poor.” The index improved in three of four Census regions while holding steady in the Midwest. Also moving forward during the month were indices tracking single-family home sales (up three points to 72), expected sales of single-family homes (up a point to 72), and traffic of prospective buyers (up two points to 49). The press release noted that survey respondents had “characterize[d] sales as solid, driven by improved demand and ongoing low overall supply.”

#5Small business owner sentiment firmed in April. The National Federation of Independent Business’s Small Business Optimism Index grew for the third consecutive month with a 1.7 point gain to a seasonally adjusted 103.5 (1986=100). While off from the 104.8 reading a year earlier, the index has been above 100.0 for 29 straight months. Eight of the ten index components improved from their March readings, led by earnings trends, expected credit conditions, and plans to increase inventories. The press release noted that “[t]he ‘real’ economy is doing very well versus what we see in financial market volatility.”

Other U.S. economic data released over the past week:
Jobless Claims (week ending May 11, 2019, First-Time Claims, seasonally adjusted): 212,000 -16,000 vs. previous week; -9,000 vs. the same week a year earlier). 4-week moving average: 225,000 (+5.2% vs. the same week a year earlier).
Import Prices (April 2019, All Imports, not seasonally adjusted): +0.2% vs. March 2019, -0.2% vs. April 2018. Nonfuel Imports: -0.1% vs. March 2019, -0.9% vs. April 2018.
Export Prices (April 2019, All Exports, not seasonally adjusted): +0.2% vs. March 2019, +0.3% vs. April 2018.  Nonagricultural Exports: +0.4% vs. March 2019, +0.7% vs. April 2018.
Leading Indicators (April 2019, Index (2016=100)):  112.1 (vs. March 2019: 111.9, vs. April 2018: 109.1).
University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment (May 2019-preliminary, Index of Consumer Sentiment (1966Q1=100), seasonally adjusted): 102.4 (vs. April 2019: 97.2, May 2018: 98.0).
State Employment (April 2019, Nonfarm Payrolls, seasonally adjusted): Vs. March 2019: Up in 10 states, down in 1 state, and essentially unchanged in 39 states and the District of Columbia. Vs. April 2018: Up in 29 states and essentially unchanged in 21 states and the District of Columbia.
Business Inventories (March 2019, Manufacturers’ and Trade Inventories, seasonally adjusted): $2.018 trillion (Unchanged vs. February 2019, +5.0% vs. March 2018).
Treasury International Capital Flows (March 2019, Net Foreign Purchases of U.S. Securities, not seasonally adjusted): -$20.6 billion (vs. February 2019: +$52.8 billion, vs. March 2018: -$14.8 billion).

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Kevin’s current employer. No endorsements are implied.

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