Economy Watch: Retail Sales Eke Out Small April Gain

Retail sales barely budged in April compared with March, according to the Census Bureau.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Retail sales barely budged in April compared with March, according to the Census Bureau on Tuesday. Total retail and food services sales for the month, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, came in at $434.6 billion, an increase of 0.1 percent compared with March. But compared with April 2013, sales were up 4 percent.

Take autos and auto parts out of the equation, and there was no gain or loss in April compared with March (but a 2.7 percent gain compared with a year ago). That’s because car sales continue to be fairly robust, gaining 0.6 percent for the month, and 9.8 percent for the year. Other categories that did relatively wall in April included springtime-related categories such as building materials and garden equipment, up 0.4 percent, and sporting goods, hobby, book and music stores, up 0.7 percent.

Department stores turned in a surprisingly strong performance for the month, with sales increasing 1.8 percent. But since last year, department store sales were down 0.3 percent. Retail sales losers for the month include food service and drinking places (down 0.9 percent), electronics stores (down 2.3 percent) and even non-store retailers—Internet sales, that is—which were down 0.9 percent in April.

Household debt up in Q1

In its Q1 2014 Household Debt and Credit Report, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York said on Tuesday that outstanding U.S. household debt increased $129 billion from the fourth quarter of 2013. The increase was led by rises in mortgage debt (up $116 billion), student loan debt (up $31 billion) and auto loan balances (up $12 billion). These kinds of debt growth were slightly offset by $27 billion in declines in credit card and home equity lines of credit balances.

As of Q1 2014, total household indebtedness stood at $11.65 trillion, 1.1 percent higher than the previous quarter. Overall household debt remains 8.1 percent below the peak of $12.68 trillion reached in Q3 2008, however. The report is based on data from the New York Fed’s Consumer Credit Panel, a nationally representative sample drawn from anonymous Equifax credit data.

“We’ve observed household debt increase three quarters in a row and delinquency rates at their lowest levels since 2008,” Andy Haughwout, an economist at the New York Fed, notes. “However, the direction of future mortgage originations will have an important implication on the household financial outlook and we will continue to monitor it.”

Small businesses more optimistic

The National Federation of Independent Business’ Small Business Optimism Index rose 1.8 points to a post-recession high of 95.2, according to the organization on Tuesday. The index crossed the 95 marker for the first time since 2007. NFIB owners increased employment by an average of 0.07 workers per firm in April, weaker than March but the seventh positive month in a row and the best string of gains since 2006.

Wall Street ended Tuesday mixed, though the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 finished (again) at record highs. The Dow was up 19.97 points, or 0.12 percent, while the S&P 500 gained 0.04 percent. The Nasdaq, by contrast, lost 0.33 percent.

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