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Consumers Show Some Fortitude

Jason Stipp
Robert Johnson, CFA

Jason Stipp: I'm Jason Stipp for Morningstar.

We got strong retail sales and housing starts data this week, suggesting some fortitude in the all-important consumer sector. Can we believe the numbers?

Checking in today is Bob Johnson, our director of economic analysis, to give some insights on these two very important reports.

Bob, thanks for joining me.

Bob Johnson: Great to be here.

Stipp: Let's start with the retail sales report. It was good month-over-month number. What did those data suggest to you?

Johnson: We grew retail sales 1.1% from August until September, which was a very good number. We'd all thought it might be a good number, but at 1.1%, it was a great number.

Stipp: How does that fit into the short-term trend? What have we seen retail sales doing recently?

Johnson: Well, recall that we had a very weak, at least according to the numbers, second-quarter period. We actually had some negative retail sales numbers there for a while. And then starting in July, we've had three consecutive months of improvement, with this month being the best month of all.

Stipp: And you also look at the data year-over-year to help clear away some of that short-term noise. How are we doing year-over-year on retail sales?

Johnson: Well, that's where things get interesting. We are up about 4.3% year-over-year on my three-month moving average basis, excluding gasoline and excluding automobiles, which are highly volatile items.

Stipp: So, I know that there are some things you will strip away that can affect this retail sales number--sometimes we'll have a good topline number, but one thing did really well and one thing did really poorly.

When you look underneath the report, are there any special factors that you need to consider as you are gauging whether this was a really strong report or just a "kind of strong over here, and kind of weak over here" report?

Johnson: Well, there were a lot of special factors that we can talk about individually, but the key thing that I look at is how across-the-board were the changes? In other words, were there two or three items or categories that did well and everything else did poorly? This time every category, except department stores, was up and most of the items were up on a fairly large amount as well. So, it wasn't like any one thing totally drove it.

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Stipp: So that broad-based retail sales gain would suggest to you that we are seeing some fundamental strengthening. Do you think that this is making up for some sales that maybe could have occurred earlier in the year and got pent-up, or are we really seeing some acceleration here?

Johnson: Well, I can argue with some of the measurements. We talked about how the move in the data from Target and Wal-Mart selling more groceries, and the special seasonal factors may have played some havoc with some of the retail sales data. But the data here would suggest that we have seen some pretty sharp improvement recently, even excluding those factors.

Stipp: Bob, another factor that can affect the retail sales report is inflation. So, if we see prices increase, that can make the report look better than it is. We also got inflation data this week. What does that suggest about the role that higher prices played in that good retail sales report?

Johnson: Well, it certainly had some [effect], because we saw in the case of gasoline that we were up about 2.6%--I mentioned the overall [retail sales] umber was up 1.1%. So, clearly, gasoline, which was priced higher, was a factor.

But then again there were things like food that people thought was going to be a really big number because of the drought situation, but that hasn't rolled through the numbers yet. In fact, this time, meat prices were down as farmers thin their herds, and grains were up and fresh fruit was down, and net, you hardly had any change in food, which took a few people by surprise. So, overall, again, we had a 1.1% retail sales number and a 0.6% inflation number, but still we had a net positive even adjusting for inflation.

Stipp: So, certainly inflation is not accounting for all of that increase we saw on the retail sales report.

Johnson: Right, which for a couple of months it actually did.

Stipp: Another thing that's interesting is that we're seeing some perhaps fundamental strengthening in retail sales, but we're also getting earnings reports from some companies that are much more dour, [with] revisions or forecasts that they are bringing down for the rest of the year. How come earnings are not seeming to match up with some of the consumer demand that we're seeing?

Johnson: Well, that's a great question. And I think that's something we talked about for a long time: decoupling between the U.S. economy and the world economy, and a decoupling between corporate earnings and the U.S. economy.

So many of the multinationals get a large portion of their revenue, maybe as much as 20%-25% of their revenue, overseas, [and] a lot of that's been in emerging markets. So, as those markets weaken, it has a dramatic effect on corporate earnings, which by the way are up dramatically during this recovery--employment, not so much here in the U.S. And now, as some of those earnings come down overseas, it's not really affecting U.S. employment very much.

Stipp: So, we're starting to see some globalization effects with weakness in other parts of world affecting earnings, even though we might see some good strengthening perhaps some demand here in the U.S.

Johnson: Right. For example, in the case of IBM and Intel, they both reported emerging markets, which has been heretofore a really great source of growth, in the case of IBM, they said their sales to emerging markets were actually down.

Stipp: So let's talk a little bit about the tech sector. Are there some special cyclical tech sector issues that are holding back earnings as well for certain technology companies that we should be aware of?

Johnson: There are a lot of complications right now, but the tech sector is under a lot of pressure and may remain so for a little bit of time here, affecting retail sales as well.

Anticipation of the iPhone certainly slowed sales of some other phones, of some tablets, and so forth during the course of the last few months. Rumors of a new iPad may have slowed things a little bit, and then Windows 8, the new version being available next week, everybody is waiting for that. So, certainly it's had a negative effect earlier this year, and now maybe some of those will begin to roll into a positive. We already saw that with the iPhone in the retail sales report this time being a major contributor. Windows 8 will happen here in October, which will finally maybe get some of the PC sales off of dead center again. But again, PCs have a couple of other issues to worry about. Does everybody really want to do business on a tablet now, not a laptop, and are emerging markets slowing, which have been a major source of growth for computers? So, I am personally thinking that PCs still have a tough go ahead.

Stipp: You mentioned the iPhone. Is that a tailwind that we got in September that we're going to see fade away? How much of iPhone sales contributed to that strong report we saw for September?

Johnson: Well, certainly it was important because electronic sales have been down for many months, and this month we were up 3.5%. Non-store retailers, i.e., Amazon, was up 1.8% in this month, and a lot of iPhones go through that channel. So, you combine that together, and certainly it was a meaningful effect. I think because of where it came in the month and with the holidays coming, it will probably roll in yet and be helpful for another month or two, and then I suppose it will become a little bit of a drag, but maybe then Windows 8 will have taken off and maybe Christmas sales [of] televisions and so forth will start to kick in. So, a couple of offsetting factors there.

Stipp: Let's turn and talk about the housing starts report. That report looked really good. Was it too good to believe?

Johnson: It was a really good report, and I thought maybe as we moved into the fall season that we'd see a flat number. So, I was shocked when we saw a giant step function; it’s up almost 900,000 units. Recall that we bottomed at about 500,000 units about a year and a half ago, so we are now up 80% off of the bottom. That's a pretty dramatic number. We're still below the 1.4 million to 1.5 million long-term average and well below the 2.1 million peak. But we're starting to make our way back, and that's not just apartment buildings, by the way. Sometimes I check this report to make sure it isn't all apartments. There was nice growth in single-family homes, and it looks like this trend might even be here to stay because permits were also up a stunning 12%.

Stipp: So, we still have some tailwinds there, but do you think part of that good report is just making up for some things that didn't get counted earlier when we expected to see more strength in housing starts, and we're getting that bunched up a little bit now?

Johnson: I think that may be part of it. It seems unusual in September, which is a fall month and everybody is back to school and some of the shopping is done and behind us in terms of homes, and it was actually the best month of the year, and that's kind of unusual. [When] our analyst team talked to all the homebuilders, we were hearing 60% growth in orders, 40% growth in orders, and we weren't seeing it in the starts numbers [earlier in the year]. And I attributed it, well, maybe it's because there are so many small builders out there. But it looks like maybe things got caught up in September, if you will.

Stipp: We haven't seen housing help the employment market yet, but when we see starts that are starting to get counted in the way they are now with that good report, are we going to see more housing employment help the unemployment picture in the months ahead?

Johnson: Well, unless they violate the rules of physics, I have got to see a jump-up or a restatement of past employment numbers in the construction industry. We've had really good starts numbers for probably six to eight months here now, and I've always said, well, maybe when they get to the final stages of the house, maybe we will finally see the number go up. It still really hasn't moved yet. I'm wondering if somehow that the work is being done by small businesses that haven't been picked up in the [government employment] surveys yet. I'm wondering if that might be part of the issue, but whether it's a restatement of past numbers or a big jump into the future, housing will be a positive in the employment report in the months ahead.

Stipp: Bob, thanks for this important insight on these two critical reports that offer some good news, I think, for the consumer and potential consumer demand ahead. Thanks for being here today.

Johnson: Great to be here.

Stipp: For Morningstar, I'm Jason Stipp. Thanks for watching.