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Nov. 15, 2012

Economy Watch: Retail Sales See Downtick in October

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

U.S. retail sales declined 0.3 percent from September to October, according to the Census Bureau on Wednesday. Compared with the same month in 2011, however, sales were up 3.8 percent. Though retail sales have seen periodic downticks, like this October, the generally trend since the worst of the recession has been upward.

Moreover, the increases have been more-or-less independent of gas prices, which have been notoriously volatile in recent years (the bureau adjusts its numbers for seasonal variations and holidays, but not price increases). Taking gasoline out of the equation and retail sales went up 3.5 percent year-over-year in October, so Americans are spending on a lot more than just gasoline.

Some of the monthly decline in October may have been because of Hurricane Sandy, though the Census Bureau declined to make that determination. “Even though we cannot isolate the effect, we did receive indications… that the hurricane had both positive and negative effects on the retail sales data,” the bureau noted in a press statement. Stores were closed, but other stores sold more supplies to people facing the storm.

For-sale housing inventory continues decline

Realtor.com, the portal of the National Association of Realtors, reported on Wednesday that the total U.S. for-sale inventory of single family homes, condos, townhomes and co-ops—the whole residential ball of wax—remained at historic lows, with 1.76 million units for sale in October 2012, down 17 percent compared to a year ago. The median age of inventory was down 11.8 percent compared to one year ago, so houses seem to be moving faster as well.

Lower inventories and faster turnaround suggest that the housing market is ending the 2012 home-buying season in better shape than it was a year ago, but it isn’t quite a sure thing. The recent erosion in the median list price of U.S. housing may mean a dampening of recent increases in housing prices, the Realtors posited, noting that the median list price in October was $189,900, the same as a year ago.

The housing recovery that began in Florida more than a year ago has since spread to California, Arizona, Nevada and other parts of the West, the Realtors added, with many of these markets registering dramatic declines in the number of properties for sale coupled with year-over-year list price increases of 10 percent of more. However, a number of Midwestern markets are still registering signs of weakness, with list prices below the levels observed last year.

FOMC: There will be some changes made

The Federal Open Market Committee released the minutes from its Oct 23-24 meeting on Wednesday, which seems to indicate that the central bank will adopt a threshold rule for the Feds Fund Rate based on inflation and unemployment, and will remove the forward guidance sentence from the statement at the Dec. 11-12 meeting. The forward guidance sentence is probably best known for the statement: “[The Fed] currently anticipates that exceptionally low levels for the federal funds rate are likely to be warranted at least through mid-2015.”

The FOMC noted in its statement that “participants generally agreed that the Committee would need to resolve a number of practical issues before deciding whether to adopt quantitative thresholds to communicate its thinking about the timing of the initial increase in the federal funds rate.” In other words, the details of such changes are yet to be hammered out.

Wall Street had a case of nerves on Wednesday, registering sizable declines. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 185.23 points, or 1.45 percent, while the S&P 500 was down 1.39 percent and the Nasdaq was off 1.29 percent.

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