US consumption rose in August as gas prices fell

CNN Business

Another month of falling gas prices gave Americans’ wallets a bit of a reprieve in August. That sent consumers back to stores last month.

The Census Bureau reported Thursday that a key measure of U.S. retail sales unexpectedly rose 0.3% month-on-month in August, following a revised 0.4% decline in July. Retail sales, which are not adjusted for inflation, increased by 9.1% from the previous year.

The continued decline in gas prices was reflected by a fall of 4.2% for the month on expenses at petrol stations. Bracing out of this volatile component, sales rose 0.8% for the month. Persistently high food inflation was evident in a 0.2% increase in grocery spending on a month-on-month basis.

The strong reading, which indicates a resilient consumer, is likely to give more ammunition to the Federal Reserve, which has raised interest rates in an effort to curb the highest inflation in 40 years. August consumer prices rose 8.3% over the past year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday.

Of the 13 retail spending categories tracked by the Census Bureau, eight rose in August. Spending at food and beverage retailers increased by 0.5% for the month and has risen by 7.2% over the past year. Sales rose at restaurants and bars, and car dealerships were up 2.8% on the month. Expenditure on building materials and equipment, clothing and sports equipment also rose.

Apparel and department stores “may have been able to keep a lot of back-to-school shoppers spending in-store,” said Doug Hermanson, chief economist at Kantar. “Gas prices have been down for the last couple of months. . . . From the parents’ perspective, it freed up some money they didn’t think they would have in May or June.”

Spending in August fell at gas stations as well as at furniture retailers, electronics stores, health and personal care stores and at non-store retailers. Non-store sales, a rough proxy for e-commerce, likely fell in August due to the timing of Amazon Prime Day in July, market observers suggested.

“Consumer electronics and furniture are retreating. Those are the channels that show the weight of the housing market … continues to hit those sectors,” Hermanson said. Freddie Mac data found mortgage rates rose above the 6% mark for the week ended Thursday, the highest level since fall 2008 and more than double from a year ago.

The retail sales report suggests the tailwind of lower gas prices was a key factor helping Americans cope last month. This raises the worrisome prospect that a rise in gas or heating costs in the winter could trigger a significant cut, as consumers have less dry powder today than they did a year ago, when household balance sheets were better strengthened by savings from shutdowns and government aid.

“I think consumers are responding to a couple of things. One, they’ve drawn down a lot of their savings and are also reacting to high prices for many items, said Luke Tilley, chief economist at Wilmington Trust.

Pain at the pump makes this worse, he said. “Gas prices is certainly a challenge for consumers. They act very much like a treasure. If we saw another increase in gas prices, we would expect to see weaker spending in many of these other retail categories.”

At the meeting next week, it is widely expected that the central bank will raise its benchmark interest rate by 75 basis points (or three quarters of a percentage point) for the third time in a row.

“The Fed has gone well out of their way to emphasize that they are going to be data-driven going forward … rather than trying to predict,” said Ross Mayfield, investment strategy analyst at Baird.

However, Fed officials will also need to factor in cross-currents such as the surprise downward revision to July’s retail sales data, which was recalculated to reflect a 0.4% drop from an initially flat reading. This suggests that the consumer is starting to show some fatigue, analysts said.

“Consumers are still spending money. In many cases, however, they take home less, Stifel chief economist Lindsey Piegza said in a research note. “With inflation continuing its relentless climb, shoppers are struggling to keep up with high prices that are eroding purchasing power,” she said, adding that changes in spending patterns indicate consumers are becoming concerned about their financial security.

Ted Rossman, senior industry analyst at Bankrate, said there is evidence that wealthier household balance sheets are holding up while lower-income families struggle to buy necessities, but this financial stress is creeping up the income spectrum.

“I think we’re starting to see it go up,” he said. [It’s] eroding people’s savings. We see it in things like credit card balances,” which he said are approaching record highs. “It’s a cumulative effect of all of this.”

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