The spending picture is as confusing as ever.
Wall Street had been expecting consumers to dig deeper into their pockets in February after a seemingly frugal holiday season, but were left disappointed when official figures showed a 0.2 percent slip as shoppers cut back on purchases of clothes, furniture and food among other things.
The picture was even worse when volatile items such as automobiles, gasoline and restaurants were excluded, with monthly sales down 0.7 percent.
“The weaker-than-expected February retail sales numbers reflect colder weather and increased precipitation that kept shoppers home,” National Retail Federation chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “The aftereffects of the erratic stock market, the government shutdown and slower tax refunds this year also likely played a role.”
Adding to the confusing retail backdrop was January’s retail sales number, which was upwardly revised from a 0.2 percent gain to a 0.7 percent increase, while December, which should be the strongest month of the year as consumers stock up on holiday gifts, still showed a 1.6 percent decline.
Trying to make sense of the data, Kleinhenz stressed that it is important to look beyond the February figures and focus on the very significant revision to January retail sales, which shows that the consumer “has not forsaken the economy as some previously claimed.”
He still expects growth to pick up, fueled by strong fundamentals like job and wage growth that are driving increased consumer spending.
Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist at economic consultancy Capital Economics, agreed that with consumer confidence back at multiyear highs and the March employment report, due this Friday, likely to show that the underlying pace of jobs growth is still solid, “a continued decline in retail sales looks unlikely.”
Wall Street clearly chose not to zero in on the February number and instead look at the broader economic picture that included strong U.S. manufacturing data. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 329.74 points, or 26,258.42.