Despite bringing in higher earnings — private wages and salaries gained a whopping $17.7 billion in April, according to government data — consumers failed to spend their money and socked it away instead.
However, a surge in construction spending, which reached a six-year high, and comments from the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston on monetary policy kept the stock market afloat, while expectations of a consumer spending bounce back in the current quarter buoyed the retail sector. Hiding in the shadows were concerns on Wall Street about Greece’s approaching repayment deadline to the International Monetary Fund as well as ongoing worries over the impact of a strong dollar on public companies.
As a result, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed the day up only 0.1 percent to 18,036 while the S&P 500 rose 0.3 percent to 2,113. The S&P 500 Retailing Industry index gained 0.2 percent to 1,135, with increases occurring across most segments.
Shares in the retail apparel segment were mixed. At the bell, Macy’s Inc. lost 0.2 percent to $66.81 while Kohl’s Corp. finished down 1.3 percent to $64.68. Target Corp. gained 0.2 percent to $79.48 while The TJX Cos. Inc. increased 1.1 percent to $65.09. VF Corp. shed 0.3 percent to close at $70.22 while Oxford Industries Inc. gained 0.2 percent to $75.69.
In the spending report, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis said personal consumption expenditures were flat for the month, which compares with a 0.5 percent gain in March — the biggest monthly increase since summer 2014.
The flat results came in as consumers had higher earnings as well as more disposable income. Personal income rose 0.4 percent in April, up from March’s flat reading. Disposable income also increased 0.4 percent while the savings rate climbed 5.6 percent, which compares with a 5.2 percent gain in March.
A more spendthrift consumer (who has also enjoyed lower fuel costs) is worrisome to Wall Street because about 70 percent of the economy is driven by spending on goods and services. In the first quarter, there was negative economic growth, but economists are expecting the gross domestic product in the current quarter to show growth of roughly 2.5 percent, with consumer spending driving the gain.
At least one industry metric released today supports that notion.
The Institute for Supply Management said its reading on manufacturing activity jumped in May to 52.8, which is up from the April’s 51.5 reading — signaling an expansion in the sector. There are challenges, though. A strong dollar continues to have a negative impact on sales and earnings for many companies, and investors have pulled back on companies that are exposed to currency volatility.
There are other concerns, including ongoing economic issues with Greece and the prospects of the timing of an interest rate hike. During a workforce development conference in Connecticut earlier Monday, Eric Rosengren, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, noted that the economy “has been softer than many forecasters expected in the first half of this year.”
“Despite a disappointing first half, most forecasters expect a stronger second half of the year. Among the factors supporting this optimism are growth in personal income, the positive impact of lower gas prices, and household net worth that continues to grow,” Rosengren said during his presentation. “However, so far this improvement is only in the forecast, and not in the data. The data have disappointed before, and an appropriately data-dependent monetary policy requires confirmation in the numbers, not just in forecasts of better times.”
Rosengren’s comments imply a delay to raising interest rates, which pleases investors. But he also shared deep concerns about the state of consumer spending.
“Most forecasters have expected relatively robust growth in consumption,” Rosengren said, adding that the first quarter was a disappointment. “If first-quarter weakness was really due to temporary factors, we would expect a rebound in the second quarter as these factors waned. The weak retail sales numbers for April, however, signal that we need to see more data before dismissing the slower first-quarter consumption as only a result of temporary factors.”
Many analysts pointed to lousy weather as the culprit for soft retail sales. But Rosengren thinks otherwise. He analyzed weather data, and discovered that there were no “sharp variations across regions of the country.” He said the regional patterns were “quite similar” thereby making weather less of a factor.
“An alternative explanation — versus temporary factors such as severe weather impacting recent data — could be simply that many consumers remain reluctant to spend despite the time that has passed since the Great Recession,” Rosengren said, adding that the savings rate remains high.