Friday, May 14, 2010

Conspicuous Correlation: Retail Sales April 2010

Today, the U.S. Census Bureau released its latest nominal read of retail sales (with all components revised running back to 2000) showing an increase of 0.4% from March and an 8.8% increase from April 2009 on an aggregate of all items including food, fuel and healthcare services.

Discretionary retail sales including home furnishings, home garden and building materials, consumer electronics and department store sales increased 6.12% compared to April 2009 while, adjusting for inflation, “real” discretionary retail sales increased 3.73% since April 2009.

While the latest data appears to indicate that the consumer is on the mend, it's important to note that retail spending is still far below the peak levels of 2006 and, in real terms, on par with the level seen in 1994.

On a “nominal” basis, there had appeared to be “rough correlation” between strong home value appreciation and strong retail spending preceding the housing bust and an even stronger correlation when home values started to decline.

The following chart shows the year-over-year change discretionary retail sales and the year-over-year change to the S&P/Case-Shiller Composite home price index since 1993 and since 2000.

As you can see there is, at the very least, a coincidental change to home values and consumer spending during the boom and then the bust, but as home values have continued to decline, retail spending has remained low but has not continued to consistently contract.

Looking at the chart below (click for full-screen dynamic version), adjusted for inflation (CPI for retail sales, CPI “less shelter” for S&P/Case-Shiller Composite) the “rough correlation” between the year-over-year change to the “discretionary” retail sales series and the year-over-year S&P/Case-Shiller Composite series seems now even more significant.