What Headlines Got Wrong about Today’s Data Dump

It actually wasn’t that lousy.

Voices will once again clamor with renewed vigor – after having been muffled yesterday by the mini-spike in inflation – for the Fed to back off its tightening trajectory, given today’s reports on retail sales and industrial production. But the headlines got it wrong.

So yes, comparing August to July, retail sales were ugly. To make any sense at all out of these monthly comparisons, the data is adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences and are only as good as these adjustments.

And in August, according to the Commerce Department, total retail sales fell 0.2% from July, the largest monthly decline in six month, mostly triggered by a 1.6% drop in sales at new- and used-vehicle auto dealers and auto parts stores.

These sales at auto and parts dealers differ from the monthly numbers that automakers report — they report the number of units delivered to customers, new vehicles only. But today’s numbers are in dollars and include sales of new and used vehicles and auto parts.

Nevertheless, they share the impact of hurricane Harvey. Automakers reported earlier this month a 6.4 % year-over-year decline in the seasonally adjusted annual rate of sales of new vehicles. In the last week of August, hurricane Harvey had brought new and used vehicle sales in a large auto market to essentially zero. This weighs in today’s numbers: Sales at auto and parts dealers are by far the largest category, accounting for 21% of total retail sales!

Those changes in seasonally adjusted sales from July to August were the focus of the headlines. But on a year-over-year basis, comparing August 2017 to August 2016, without seasonal adjustments, total retail sales rose 3.5%.

This chart of year-over-year changes in total retail sales, not seasonally adjusted, shows the same middling range of sales increases we’ve had for years. Note that these percentage changes are not adjusted for price changes:

Within those retail sales, sales at non-store retailers (mostly online) rose 8.4% year-over-year, building materials 8.4%, and even auto and auto parts sales rose 1.5%  year-over-year. Yup, despite Harvey. New vehicles are struggling, but their prices are up, and used vehicles are hot.

The only year-over-year decliners were sales at electronics and parts stores (-3.5%), sporting goods, hobby, book, and music stores (-1.4%), and at department stores (-0.8%), many of them tangled up in the brick-and-mortar meltdown.

The crummy industrial production numbers that the Federal Reserve released today paint a similar picture. On a monthly basis, seasonally adjusted industrial production in August fell 0.9% from July, the first monthly decline in seven months and the largest monthly decline since May 2009.

The declines were booked at manufacturers (-0.3%), utilities (-5.5%), and mining (-0.8%). Production declined for business equipment (-0.4%), consumer goods (-0.7%), and construction (-0.6%). But auto production rose 2.2%, after a 4.2% drop July.

Harvey hit oil-and-gas drilling activities, the vast refining and petrochemical sector around Houston, manufacturing plants, utilities by taking down power lines, creating blackouts, cutting off water supplies in some areas… The Federal Reserve explains:

Hurricane Harvey, which hit the Gulf Coast of Texas in late August, is estimated to have reduced the rate of change in total output by roughly 3/4 percentage point. The index for manufacturing decreased 0.3 percent; storm-related effects appear to have reduced the rate of change in factory output in August about 3/4 percentage point. The manufacturing industries with the largest estimated storm-related effects were petroleum refining, organic chemicals, and plastics materials and resins.

And yet, the industrial production index, at 104.7 in August, was up 1.5% from August 2016. Note in the chart how the energy bust had crushed overall industrial production in 2015 and 2016:

There are plenty of things to worry about, including the auto sector, were production is down 3.6% over the past year. The weakness in the auto sector in terms of new vehicle retail sales started in mid-2016, and production has to follow. And growth in manufacturing overall has been nothing to write home about for years.

Harvey and Irma are going to impinge on US economic numbers – first one way, then the other. But overall, these are essentially the same economic conditions that persisted a year ago, when the Fed began in earnest its tightening cycle, and there is nothing in these numbers that is outside the new normal, and nothing that would lower the Fed’s will to continue on its “gradual” path of tightening.

With its infamous, mind-numbing, relentless flip-flopping from 2013 into early 2016, the Fed took its credibility out the back and shot it. And that’ll be a problem for the markets. Read…  “You Should Take the Fed at Their Word”

Enjoy reading WOLF STREET and want to support it? You can donate. I appreciate it immensely. Click on the beer and iced-tea mug to find out how:

Would you like to be notified via email when WOLF STREET publishes a new article? Sign up here.

  48 comments for “What Headlines Got Wrong about Today’s Data Dump

  1. Smingles says:

    “Harvey and Irma are going to impinge on US economic numbers – first one way, then the other. But overall, these are essentially the same economic conditions that persisted a year ago, when the Fed began in earnest its tightening cycle, and there is nothing in these numbers that is outside the new normal, and nothing that would lower the Fed’s will to continue on its “gradual” path of tightening.”

    Respectfully, I disagree. And I’ll continue to disagree until we see growth and inflation that justifies rate hikes. Of which we haven’t seen either.

    NY Fed Q3 GDP estimate downgraded to 1.34%
    Atlanta Q3 GDP estimate downgraded to 2.2% (from 4% just a month ago)

    I suspect Atlanta will continue to drift lower. That has been their pattern, usually– high early estimates that drop the closer to the end of the quarter we get.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      In 2016, GDP grew at 1.8%. So at the current rate, we’re right in the same scenario.

    • Justme says:

      >>And I’ll continue to disagree until we see growth and inflation that justifies rate hikes.

      As I am certain you are aware, some people think that asset price inflation and not consumer price inflation should be the measure of whether rate hikes are needed. This difference is at the core of the scam known as the Federal Reserve Bank, a scam that makes the poor poorer and the rich richer.

      • Kreditanstalt says:

        Apparently, the fact that us peasants do actually regularly SPEND on “asset” purchases ~ via stocks, bond funds, mutual funds, gold, whatever ~ is ignored in official thinking.

        We’re in a STORM of price inflation right now. Stocks, bonds, housing, rents, healthcare, education, taxes…

        But the Official Meme is: asset purchases don’t count. Inflation is negligible.

        Maybe for rabbits…

        • Boiled Coffee says:

          Housing costs are included in the CPI, this is both rent and what BLS estimates as “owner equivalent rent”. In an odd twist, raising the overnight rate could increase upward pressure on housing costs because it would increase PITI for existing homeowners and landlords that are not in a fixed rate mortgage, while perhaps having downward price pressure on inventory. So asset price inflation in real estate is a bit more complicated a story. It is also important to note that the CPI measures are national, but there is a wide distribution of trends in housing costs across the country. In most major cities it has been steeply increasing, but for a lot of America this is not true and housing costs have been flat or even going down. This is true for some cities, like Detroit and Baltimore, but is even moreso true for the vast swaths of land between the coasts.

          Stocks and bonds however are clearly another story.

    • you have it backwards, the Fed is normalizing rates, and there is nothing in the economic numbers to prevent them from doing it. the economy can handle it.

    • d says:

      “Respectfully, I disagree. And I’ll continue to disagree until we see growth and inflation that justifies rate hikes. Of which we haven’t seen either.

      When wages are to low the fact they are to low is justification to raise them.

      Before what is justified to simply keep pace with the real inflation outside the BS US inflation numbers.

      The same with interest rates.

      They were artificially lowered to try to cause something to happen economically.

      Instead a of the intended/desired effect this has caused various negative effect therefor they should be returned to historical level with out and need for any “NEW Growth” as the low interest rate policy is a HUGE FAILURE (Unless you are an Asset speculator).

      Further the LOW INTEREST RATES ARE CREATING HUGE national and GlobalECONOMIC PROBLEMS which will take decades to unravel and are in fact holding back the desired and unrealistically deemed necessary by some “NEW GROWTH”.

      Stagnant economies are fine, as long as they are stagnant across the whole spectrum.

      In the US you have huge asset growth (Mostly paper which benefits only a few) caused by low interest policies, and a shrinking almost Stagflation general workers economy.

      That is a recipe for a HUGE long-term/Multi-generational Economic Disaster.

      Perhaps you want to see massive Multi-generational Hoovervilles outside every American town and city.

      Perhaps you think the Brazilian/Saudi Massive slums and huge palaces economic system is good and want to see more of it in the US.

      If the US interest rates don’t rise, and continue to until they normalise that is what will happen.

      Once you make the US like that again you will need much more than another FDR new deal to change it.

      • alex in san jose AKA digital Detroit says:

        d- no kidding on the multi-generational slums, we’re starting to have them now. There’s a group of families who live in the local Fry’s parking lot, or at least spend their nights there. You always hear the kids playing, in the parking lot. They have some junky old cars and minivans and that’s where they spend their night.

        There are people who go around here collecting scrap metal, and their kids are with them; learning the trade. These kids are not in school.

        It’s not uncommon at all to have three generations in a given tent city now. Parents, maybe in their 50s, children in their 20s, and grandchildren of kindergarten age. Just like in any Dickens novel.

  2. TJ Martin says:

    …. and yet .. and ye … looking at the numbers at 10:59 most … every effing aspect of the market is in the green again .. as the Peter Pan quotient continues to rule the day

    As for rate hikes Wolf … you and I are in agreement with my respectfully disagreeing with Smingles

    We are in desperate need of a significant rate hike in order to bring some semblance of reality back into play not to mention once again encouraging saving rather than the current ___ for brains spending spree we’re in

    • mickey says:

      gasoline sales were up 2.5% vs July-price and I bet people in Houston loading tanks up-Home improvement and grocery sales also up pre hurricane.
      Houston new car annual sales were running at a 270k pace-if sales stopped for 7 days-that’s on average 800 a day or 6000 for 7 days, actually not that big a deal.
      More important is unit nationwide sales on a daily basis declined again by 6%.
      6000 unit sales on 1.4 million sold is less than 1/2%.

      it is certainly not a robust economy and probably down.

    • d says:

      “We are in desperate need of a significant rate hike”

      NO NO NOI.

      Baby steps, or you will make a “humpty dumpty” mess out of it.

      A FFF HUGE one.

  3. penfold dangermouse says:

    on an real per capita basis consumer debt is at an all-high high. straight up since 1980’s with a pullback and then liftoff post-2008. data at St. Louis Fed’s FRED.

    Where’s the top? who knows? But on a per capita historical since-records-were-kept basis, we are in the stratosphere.

    • Gee says:

      Oh Crumbs. Oh KRykie! Looks like I’m on me own. ‘Spose I’ll have to face the fearless foes alone, disregarding any thought for my safety….and….

      Stop overacting.

      …and stop overacting. DM!!!

      But seriously, just plot the PMI versus industrial production growth, and you’ll see this is a temporary blip, mostly due to the way it is reported (m/m).

      Retail sales data, on the other hand, is quite volatile month to month, and lest we forget, the most recent data point will be revised, often so much as to make the story completely different than it was when the preliminary number came out.

      So all this is hand waving for now. You need a few months of noticeable trend in these variables, and a good causative linkage, before you can make any bold statements.

      And now, back to our show….

      Baron Greenback

      • TJ Martin says:

        Hmmm .. temporary blip ehh ? Seems to me they had the exact same line of thinking almost verbatim back in late 1928 early 1929 …. and we all know how well that worked out .

        Sincerely ;
        Count Guitalfavatori

  4. The slowdown in Chinese exports should play out as expected, with jobs returning, the dollar weakening, and more pressure on employment. the Fed has the domestic economy on track, but the list of possible exogenous events is mind boggling; crypto currency ponzi schemes, geopolitical relations snap, a presidency whose irrelevance is heading toward a breaking point. a constitutional convention.
    the real question in the event of crisis will we allow the Fed to stick its fingers deep into the bowels of this thing and make high level decisions. as prologue the Bernanke fed seems to have established their credibility as monetary firemen, but does Yellen have the same personality, and do we really want that kind of intervention in free markets again. my own OP is that Yellen will not intervene unless asked and then only to the degree that her moves are deemed circumspect. don’t worry about these midget rate moves, worry about what happens the day after the world ends.

    • TJ Martin says:

      Slowdown in Chinese ‘ imports ‘ ( not exports ) ? Jobs returning ?

      ( ok the dollar is in decline so I’ll give you that )

      Where pray tell might that be happening ? I ask because if you’ve been reading the economic news of late what with Ford moving more manufacturing and production to China , Harley Davidson doing the same to India and China etc etc – et al – ad nauseam .. that sure as H-E double L branding irons aint a happenin here in the good ole US of A . Just the opposite in fact .

    • TJ Martin says:

      … and err .. why should anyone care what happens the day after the world ends ? No matter what your beliefs by then … its too late .

      • There is always the day after, and this part is critical, monetary policy now belongs to the inflationists, Keynesians, and this is the moment in time when the sound money advocates should put constraints on the system, and when the system collapses, once more, the sound money people will get charge of the monetary system and that is precisely the time when you need the Keynesians. The result of sound money policy AFTER the crash would be a financial dark ages, the L shaped recovery.
        For the last two cycles the Keynesians have controlled the monetary system at the top and the bottom of the cycle. The last sane one of the group was Greenspan who wanted to build a linear growth rate that provides limits on both higher and lower growth, but of course give Wall St that and they will leverage it ten times.

  5. Petunia says:

    The retail numbers are set at the margins, those with money comprise the core of the number, the rest of us set the trend. September will be up because I had my hair done and bought some towels too.

  6. Gershon says:

    I believe “the data” is utterly irrelevant to any any Fed rate hike decision. The Fed has one purpose only: to facilitate the financial strip-mining of what’s left of the middle class by its oligarch patrons. Understand that, and everything the Fed does makes perfect sense.

    Yellen’s incoherent mumbling about “the data” in relation to mythical future rate hikes is so much smoke and mirrors. Yellen and her flying monkeys can dissemble all they want about “dot plots” and their supposed desire to normalize rates and reduce their $4.5 trillion dollar balance sheet – but at the end of the day they’re a criminal private banking cartel, not a responsible central bank, and they will act accordingly.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      You said you don’t even read the Fed minutes or the Fed press releases because you don’t WANT to know what they say. How to you want to understand the Fed when you don’t WANT to know?

      • Frederick says:

        Wolf with all due respect it’s obvious to anyone regardless of smoke and mirror ” press relieases” what the FEDS agenda is Its a big club and you ain’t in it George Carlin

        • d says:

          And if you dont read what the club has to say publicly, you are just blowing baseless smoke when you rail against it.

          Contrary to the loonies, the FED is not the evil entity the loonies make it out to be.

          Just like toilets and sewage systems in modern cities (they can not function with out) FED is an integral part of the global financial system.

          The system is better for it presence, no matter what the loonies say.

      • Gershon says:

        Wolf, it isn’t that I don’t WANT to know what they say. I only care about what they DO. And what they DO is serve as the oligarchy’s chief instrument of financial warfare against the 99%. What they SAY is smoke and mirrors, which has been proven repeatedly since 2008. How many times has the Fed said one thing and done another? I’ve lost count. They have zero credibility with me, so I ignore what they say – I only pay attention to what they do, or don’t do.

        As far as “understanding” the Fed, I understand full well what they are: the greatest swindle ever perpetrated against the American middle and working class. They have one agenda: concentrating all wealth and power in the hands of a corrupt and venal .1% in the financial sector at the expense of everyone else. Is there anything else about these grifters I need to know?

  7. walter map says:

    Oh, no, not again.

    GDP figures include business spending on share buybacks and getting operations offshored, government spending on bombing brown people in other countries, and consumer spending on subprime loans for vehicles and real estate they can’t afford.

    There are so many problems with how GDP is calculated that it is worse than useless as an indicator of economic performance. Official economic statistics are routinely adjusted to serve political motivations besides.

    You can take them seriously if you like. I’m not buying it. The finances of a wide majority of Americans are circling the drain for the simple reason that the US economy is being liquidated, and their numbers increase every year. Honest statistics clearly show the US economy has been in recession for years, with no recovery in sight:

    • Justme says:

      Right on, Walter. The only reason our offical GDP is positive is because the country borrows money and uses the proceeds t bomb and terrorize brown people. It is disgusting and amoral to the hilt.

      • walter map says:

        Since when does maximizing financial profit have anything at all to do with ‘morals’? What are you, some kind of idealistic Christian do-gooder socialist? That’s not how business is done in America, unless you wanna be a loozer. After all, people are going to die anyway, so somebody may as well make some money from the process, right?

        Normative valuations, like moral issues, are more within the purview of economics. Finance doesn’t concern itself with them, and it’ll definitely get you kicked out of the club if you bring it up.

        My point is that money is borrowed and spent on grand scales in ways that are not only unproductive and wasteful but which are ultimately suicidal. Unfortunately, the Long Run doesn’t matter to the Masters of Money because, as Keynes himself noted, in the long run, we’re all dead, myself excepted.

        Therefore the focus is exclusively on the Short Run, making money as fast as possible as soon as possible by whatever means possible, despite the inevitable consequences. ‘Morals’ and ‘ethics’ are naturally the first casualties, but the list of profitable distortions includes rigging the economic statistics to ensure the continuance of a self-destructive system. Reality be darned, and full speed ahead.

        This isn’t a topic that our Illustrious and Gracious Host can cover in a blog, so somebody’s going to have to write a book, like Adam Smith and Carroll Quigley did. As our host has pointed out in the past, he is interested in divining which direction the Fed might stumble next, given the available data, however compromised by policies of obsessive and short-sighted avarice. I happen to think this scope is too narrow to be of more than limited value, in view the wider issues involved, but it’s not my blog, and the Fed’s actions are definitely of considerable concern.

        As for your concerns, well, war is a racket, and Smedley couldn’t change that, and neither could all the other do-gooders, so people will just have to live with it, or die with it, depending on your location and personal circumstances.

  8. james wordsworth says:

    The Fed HAS TO normalize because every day we see more and more the stupid things people/companies do when money is too cheap. Inflation is irrelevant for now.

    • Gershon says:

      Getting debt donkeys in over their head is precisely the point. Once again, with feeling: the whole point of the Fed since its 1913 inception has been to transfer the wealth of the middle and working classes to its oligarch patrons.

      The Federal Reserve cue card:

      Step 1: Create fake money stealing value from everyone

      Step 2: Loan the fake money to people with interest

      Step 3: Take people’s stuff when they can’t repay the debt

      Step 4: Get government to enforce our fraud

      Step 5: Plunder humanity

      • Frederick says:

        Get some gold and silver while it’s still “on sale” folks and NO I do not sell metals for a living Or stay in the dollar and get gobsmacked Take your choice

    • Michael says:

      I thought along those same lines two or three years ago. The stupid is far worse now.

  9. High Tower says:

    Much as I am the eternal optimist, I found the below bearish news link on my travels. It seems that Wolfstreet is going bullish at exactly the wrong moment.


    • Wolf Richter says:

      I’ve been talking about job losses in Santa Clara county (where San Jose is) for three months :-]

    • Gershon says:

      It seems that Wolfstreet is going bullish at exactly the wrong moment.

      Wolf Street is one of the very few blogs out there that I view as highly credible and recommend to other people, since it’s evident that Wolf has an excellent grasp of the facts, a rare talent for prognostication, and an agenda-free, insightful interpretation of data, information, and emerging trends. Also, Wolf & the other writers such as DQ provide valuable context and nuance that the mainstream financial media often willfully overlooks so as not to draw their ire of their corporate masters and advertisers.

      On the areas where I disagree with Wolf, I’m aways willing to concede the possibility that I might be in error or the true picture is not what I perceive it to be. I make a point of searching out reasoned analysis and viewpoints contrary to my own that challenge my assumptions and understanding of a given topic.

      As far as the Fed and central banks, I’ve made my viewpoint clear; however, I am hopeful that Wolf will be proven correct and I will be proven wrong. That said, the Fed’s actions – as opposed to its public statements – since 1913 and especially since 2008 speak for themselves. So I guess we’ll see in the fullness of time which perspective is closer to the truth.

    • Wolf Richter says:

      On second thought: what makes you think I’m “bullish” by saying that this year the economic picture in the US (not Silicon Valley) looks the same as last year, when GDP grew by a miserably slow 1.8%?

      “Bullish” would be to prognosticate growth of 3% or higher.

      However, I do not forecast a nationwide official recession. I do not see the data for an official recession at this time. When I see enough evidence of it, I’ll write about it.

      • Gershon says:

        I think we need to make distinctions between the real, physical economy, which has been pillaged by the oligarchy and their “financialization” of everything, and Wall Street’s speculative rigged casino, backstopped by the Fed and middle class taxpayers, where a corrupt and venal .1% have become obscenely wealthy at the expense of everyone else, thanks to their control of the Fed and co-option of our political parties and institutions of governance.

      • stable is bullish, ref: VIX

      • d says:

        “when GDP grew by a miserably slow 1.8%?”

        Factor in real inflation, as oppsed th the “Piliticall Correteced” Inflation relased by the state, Take out the contribution of”Assets, Mostly paper” and you get a smaller “Growth” # Possible even a small contraction Methink’s..

        Hence your predictive number’s indicate more of the same basic sideways almost “Stagflation” Economy Those not speculating in “Assets, Mostly paper” have had for some time.

        The thing with those “Assets, Mostly paper” Being they have in the past been subject to sudden and violent negative correction’s AKA “A sudden return to reality”.

        The future could hold such a thing for those “Assets, Mostly paper”.

        The3 FED is trying to ensure that dose not happen, not to protect the rich as the Loonies claim . But to keep what is left of the “Real Economy” basically stable.

    • alex in san jose AKA digital Detroit says:

      Wolf’s on top of it, and I remember posts on here about how Detroit was flying high for quite a while, and people thought, This party will never end! We’ve got cheap land, water, we’re in the central US so we can ship our cars everywhere, who’s gonna make cars, huh? We’re always gonna make cars.

      I really wonder if the Bay Area is in the same situation. Yeah, we’ve been flying high for decades, and we think this is going to go on forever, because who’s gonna make …. fart apps…. huh? There are signs of uneasiness …

  10. Gershon says:

    More on the Fed’s “historic leap into the unknown” (starting to sell off its massively bloated $4.5 trillion balance sheet, most of which it should never have been allowed to accumulate in the first place) starting, allegedly, in October.

    I’ll believe it when I see it.


  11. Justme says:

    As several authors have indicated in this thread, GDP is a complete bullshit measure of economic well-being, given that all kinds of unproductive activities (e.g. borrow and spend on share buybacks) and even counterproductive activities (e.g. borrow and spend on war) count as contributions to GDP. Same goes for Asset Valuation or Asset Prices (call them AV or AP for short, perhaps someone has some better names and concepts).

    But even apart from that, GDP as a number is also meaningless by itself because it does not account for population. More meaningful measures would be GDP/capita or GDP/workinagecapita. Why do hardly ever see those numbers in the press? Because GDP is just a number being used to justify whatever monetary shenanigans that will enrich the rich.

    We need a new measure: Productive GDP per WorkingAgeCapita, or PGDP/WAC.

  12. Gershon says:

    The only thing propping up these supercharged Ponzi markets has been the tsunami of central bank money printing. Does anyone seriously believe that if you take away this financial crack cocaine, these rigged, broken, manipulated markets won’t crash under the weight of their own fraud, debt, and fictitious valuations?


Comments are closed.