Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Withering Spring...

Just weeks ago, we were heralding the arrival of the green shoots - the recovery, we were told, was blooming alongside of spring.

So it seemed a short time ago. Today, while the lilacs bloom all around me (reminding me of Whitman - and of Lincoln), it seems the green shoots of recovery are withering on the vine.

With Memorial Day - the official start of summer - still in the not-so-distant future, gas prices in my area have jumped up more than fifty cents in the last week or so. (One imagines what the price of gas will be like in July - and one remembers the impact the price of gas had on consumer spending last summer.)

And even before gas prices began to go up, consumers had begun to hang on to their money - according to a story in the Wall Street Journal, the April retail season was not abloom with spending.

In fact it was the second month in a row to post declines in retail spending.

Here's to hoping that those folks getting the bonuses will start spending like mad at Macy's soon!

Here's the WSJ story in full:

Wall Street Journal
MAY 13, 2009, 11:33 A.M. ET
Retail Sales Post April Decline
By JEFF BATER

WASHINGTON -- U.S. retail sales fell a second month in a row during April, as job losses and uncertainty about the economy put pressure on spending.

Retail sales decreased by 0.4% compared to the prior month, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Economists expected an increase of 0.1%.

Sales in March were revised down, decreasing 1.3% instead of 1.2% as previously reported. Sales rose in January and February, after sliding six straight months.

Separately, U.S. import prices jumped last month by their largest amount in almost one year, reflecting a third-straight increase in oil prices. However, excluding oil, prices actually fell for a ninth-straight month, an indication that the global economic recession continues to take pressure off inflation in the U.S.

Consumer spending makes up 70% of gross domestic product, the broad measure of economic activity. GDP plunged 6.1% in the first quarter. It would have fallen farther if not for a 2.2% increase in consumer spending. The 2.2% increase followed a fourth-quarter spending drop of 4.3%.

But spending remains under pressure due to uncertainty about the economy. Economic stimulus hurried into law by President Barack Obama and a sharp decline in energy prices, pummeled lower since last summer by the economy, have given households reason to relax and spend a little more. Still, consumers are worried about losing their jobs. The recession has put 5.7 million out of work since beginning in December 2007.

Housing-sector sales were mixed in April, with furniture retailers falling 0.5% and building material and garden supplies dealers rising 0.3%.

Another sector that has weighted down the economy is cars. Year over year, auto and parts retail sales are 20.7% below April 2008. April 2009 sales rose 0.2% compared to the prior month. Excluding autos, all other sales dropped 0.5% -- below the 0.2% climb expected by economists. Auto sales fell 2.0% in March and ex-auto sales that month fell 1.2%.

April gas station sales retreated 2.3%, after dropping 3.2% in March. Stripping away sales at gas stations, demand at all other retailers decreased 0.2% last month.

Excluding auto sales and gas station sales, all other retailers saw sales fall 0.3% in April.

Sales last month decreased 0.5% at clothing stores; 2.8% at electronic stores; 0.1% at general merchandise stores; 0.1% at mail order and Internet retailers; and 1.0% at food and beverage stores.

Sales rose 0.3% at sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores; 0.2% at eating and drinking places; and 0.4% at health and personal care stores.

Import Prices Jump on Oil
Import prices rose 1.6% last month from March, the Labor Department said Wednesday, more than double the 0.7% increase that Wall Street economists in a Dow Jones Newswires survey had expected. It was the largest increase since June 2008.

Import prices were still down 16.3% compared to April 2008, the biggest one-year drop since the index was first published in 1982, driven in large part by sharply lower oil prices over the past year. Though petroleum import prices rose 15.4% in April from March, they were down almost 50% on the year.

Excluding petroleum, import prices were down 0.4% from March, and were 5.6% lower on the year, the largest decline on record.

That suggests steep drops in oil and commodity prices at the end of last year are no longer driving U.S. disinflation, but rather the global economic downturn. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund expect global gross domestic product to contract this year for the first time since World War II.

Reports later this week on U.S. producer and consumer prices will indicate how much the decline in import prices is filtering through the economy. The bulk of consumer inflation is made up of housing, medical and other services that aren't traded globally, and consumer price figures haven't signaled the type of deflationary pressures seen in import prices.

According to Wednesday's report, prices for non-petroleum industrial supplies and materials imports fell 2.3% last month. Automobile prices were down 0.1%. Prices of imported capital goods were up 0.1% and consumer goods, excluding automobiles, advanced 0.2%.

Food prices fell 0.1% on the month.

Prices of imported goods from the European Union were down 0.2% on a monthly basis, while those from Canada rose 0.2%. Prices of goods from China slid 0.5%, the eighth-straight decline. Prices of products from Japan were 0.1% lower.

Meanwhile, U.S. export prices rose 0.5% from March, though they were down 6.8% from last year.

Prices of agricultural exports advanced 3.6% on the month, while prices of non-agricultural exports increased 0.3%.

Business Inventories Decrease
U.S. businesses reduced inventories in March less than expected, and a key gauge of supply buildup remained relatively high, suggesting companies will liquidate stockpiles further this spring.

Inventories decreased by 1.0% to a seasonally adjusted $1.401 trillion, the Commerce Department said Wednesday. Inventories in February dropped by 1.4%, which was a revision from a previously reported 1.3% decrease.

Wall Street was looking for inventories to move 1.2% lower during March.

Inventory slashing took a large bite out of gross domestic product in the first quarter. GDP is the broad measure of economic activity. The latest data showed businesses in the first quarter drew inventories down by $103.7 billion, reducing GDP by 2.79 percentage points -- or nearly half of its 6.1% plunge.

Liquidating excess supply of merchandise hurts orders and production and weighs on GDP in the short run. But it prevents a further buildup that could damage the economy farther down the road.

With March's 1.0% drop, business inventories have shrank seven straight months -- the longest period of decline since February 2001 through April 2002.

Business sales plunged 1.6% to a level of $971.7 billion in March, the data Wednesday showed. Sales in February were flat; originally, February sales were seen 0.2% higher.

The inventory-to-sales ratio held steady in March, remaining at its upwardly revised February level of 1.44, Commerce said. Originally, the I/S ratio for February was estimated to be 1.43. The gauge indicates how well firms are matching supply with demand. It measures how long in months a firm could sell all current inventory. A year earlier, the I/S ratio was 1.28.

Year over year, inventories fell by 4.8% since March 2008; sales plummeted 15.6%.

March manufacturing sector stockpiles of goods decreased 0.8% after falling 1.3% in February. U.S. wholesalers' inventories fell 1.6% after decreasing in February by 1.7%.

Retailers' stocks of goods decreased by 0.7%, after dropping 1.2% in February. Auto dealer inventories fell 2.0% after shrinking 2.8% in February. Excluding the auto component, other retail stocks fell 0.2% in March after sliding 0.5% in February. March inventories decreased by 0.5% at furniture outlets and 1.4% at clothing stores. Inventories increased by 0.8% at general merchandise stores; 1.1% at building materials, garden equipment and supplies stores; and 0.3% at food and beverage stores.

—Brian Blackstone contributed to this article.

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