Strong U.S. consumer supports Fed rate hikes

By Staff, with files from The Associated Press | December 14, 2018 | Last updated on December 14, 2018
3 min read

U.S. retail sales increased 0.2% in November, as strong sales tied to holiday shopping were offset by lower gasoline prices.

Excluding gas, the Commerce Department said Friday that last month’s retail sales rose a healthy 0.5%—a positive sign for economic growth and future Federal Reserve rate hikes.

When the volatile auto component is also removed, retail sales in the control group that feeds more directly into GDP were up 0.9% for the month. That figure leaves fourth-quarter consumption tracking higher than previously thought, “and gives the Fed another reason to raise interest rates at its meeting next week,” said CIBC economist Katherine Judge in a report.

Judge added that today’s data is supportive for the U.S. dollar and negative for fixed income.

Derek Holt, vice-president and head of capital markets economics at Scotiabank, likewise said in a report that today’s strong data should result in a hike on Wednesday, as well as “guide that further gradual hikes are to come in 2019.”

He also said his long-run economic view remains unchanged: “I don’t subscribe to the simplistic notion that the U.S. economy must go into recession simply because the expansion will be of record duration in about six months. […] There is plenty left in the tank for the U.S. consumer.”

Retail sales details

Retail sales have climbed a solid 5.3% so far this year. In November, non-store retail sales—a category that includes internet brands such as Amazon—jumped 2.3%. Furniture stores, electronics stores and health stores also enjoyed a solid bump as the holiday shopping season went into full swing.

Americans have responded to an improvement in economic growth this year by spending more, especially online and at restaurants. Retail sales are an indicator that Americans have faith that the economy, with a half-century low unemployment rate of 3.7%, will continue to grow.

Yet the economic gains of the past year—buoyed by President Donald Trump’s deficit-financed tax cuts—have not insulated retailers from broader long-term pressures. Sales at department stores have slipped compared with last year, while sales gains for automakers have been weak. General Motors recently announced layoffs for thousands of workers.

In November, gas stations trimmed retail sales. Service stations had a 2.3% drop in purchases last month. This was a reversal from October when higher gas prices, along with a short-lived bump in auto-buying, had helped propel broader retail sales gains of 1.1%.

The average U.S. price of regular-grade gasoline has plummeted 22 cents a gallon over the past three weeks, to US$2.51.

Those lower gas prices may have led Americans to spend more on themselves, or friends and family.

“The kick from the tax cuts is gone, but the huge and rapid drop in retail gas prices is freeing a great deal of cash at just the right time for retailers,” said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

Besides non-store retailers, the gains were fuelled by a 1.2% increase in purchases at furniture stores and a 1.4% growth in sales at electronics and appliance stores.

Core sales, which exclude autos, gas and building materials, have increased over the past two months at the fastest pace in two years, a reassuring sign for economic growth coming into the end of 2018.

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Staff, with files from The Associated Press

The Associated Press is an American not-for-profit news agency headquartered in New York City.