Economy Watch: Shoppers Not Shopping Quite as Much This Summer; HARP Refis Hit Record High; NY Fed Reports Modest Expansion

U.S. retail sales dropped 0.5 percent in June compared with May, but were up by 3.8 percent year-over-year, according to the Census Bureau on Monday.

In synch with the generally grumpy mood consumers have been in lately, U.S. retail sales dropped 0.5 percent in June compared with May, according to the Census Bureau on Monday. However, retail sales were up in June 2012 by 3.8 percent year-over-year.

Since the figures are seasonally adjusted but not adjusted for fluctuations in price, part of the drop was because of the slide in gas prices during May. Take gas out of the equation, and the monthly drop in June was 0.3 percent. On a year-over-year basis, retail sales without gas were up 4.2 percent in June 2012.

Auto sales have been supporting increasing retail sales in recent months, but not so much in June. Take out auto sales from the total and the monthly drop in retail sales in June was 0.4 percent.

HARP Refi Activity Up

The Federal Housing Finance Agency said on Monday that residential mortgages being refinanced through the Home Affordable Refinance Program (HARP) represented one-fifth of all refi activity in May, a record high. The agency chalked the increasing HARP refi volume to low interest rates and recent changes to the program to expand the pool of potential participants.

During the first five months of 2012, some 78,000 refinances were completed nationwide, which is more than for all of 2011. “Borrowers with Fannie Mae- or Freddie Mac-backed loans who are current on their underwater mortgages are taking advantage of the opportunity offered by HARP 2.0,” FHFA Acting Director Edward J. DeMarco noted in a statement, referring to the recent revisions to the program.

In some states, HARP refinancing accounts for much a higher percentage of activity. In Arizona, Florida, Michigan and Nevada—all places groaning under the burden of large numbers of underwater mortgages—HARP refi was 40 percent or more of the total. Also, the FHFA noted that borrowers with greater than 105 percent LTV accounted for about a third of HARP volume in 2012 thus far.

NY Fed Manufacturing Survey Points to Modest Expansion

The New York Federal Reserve reported on Monday in its Empire State Manufacturing Survey that the general business conditions index rose 5 points to 7.4. New orders, by contrast, declined by 5 points to a negative 2.7, the first time that index has been in negative territory since November 2011.

“Indexes for the six-month outlook generally remained favorable, but held at levels below those seen earlier this year,” the report continued. “The future general business conditions index fell three points to 20.2, with 37 percent of respondents expecting improved conditions in the months ahead and 17 percent anticipating a worsening.”

Wall Street waited nervously on Monday for word from Ben Bernanke on Tuesday, and ended down somewhat. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 49.88 points, or 0.39 percent, while the S&P 500 was down 0.23 percent, and the Nasdaq declined 0.4 percent.