Analysts Are Questioning the Latest Retail Sales Figures

(Bloomberg) -- So much for a merry Christmas. That is, if you trust the numbers.

Commerce Department figures released Thursday show U.S. retail sales fell 1.2 percent in December from the previous month, the most since 2009, rather than the slight increase economists had forecast. Even more confusing: There was a pullback in a measure based largely on internet sales, which had been expected to be the retailing industry’s saving grace this holiday season.

Some analysts reacted not just with surprise but with an unusually large dose of skepticism. Jim O’Sullivan of High Frequency Economics Ltd said the figures were so much weaker than expected “that the data lose credibility,” while Stephen Stanley of Amherst Pierpont Securities LLC said the report “seems seriously out of whack” given mostly upbeat comments from retailers about the Christmas season.

Analysts Are Questioning the Latest Retail Sales Figures

The report was delayed about a month by the federal closure. “I’m actually wondering whether the government shutdown created issues for them in terms of data collection and quality,” said Neil Dutta, head of economics at Renaissance Macro Research LLC.

While data collection was delayed by the shutdown, “processing and data quality were monitored throughout and response rates were at or above normal levels for this release,” the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau said in Thursday’s report. When asked for further comment, the department referenced that section of the report.

The report showed non-store retailers -- which includes online stores -- fell 3.9 percent month on month, the most since November 2008. They rose just 3.1 percent on an unadjusted year-over-year basis, even as Amazon.com Inc. alone saw its net sales in North America grow about 18 percent in the fourth quarter.

“Almost everyone seems to be dismissing the out-sized decline and writing it off as noise,” Omair Sharif, senior U.S. economist at Societe Generale SA, wrote in a note Thursday. “It’s certainly possible that we see an upward revision when the January report is released, but it’s not clear to me that we should dismiss this report altogether, and none of what I’ve seen/heard about why today’s report is ‘wrong’ holds much water.”

Possible Undercounting

Craig Johnson, president of retail researcher firm Customer Growth Partners LLC, said those internet shopping figures seem particularly low, suggesting some transactions were missed.

“There seems to be a significant undercount problem in the internet sales,’’ Johnson said in a phone interview. “This is a real head fake.”

The official numbers tend to be volatile on a month-to-month basis, and it’s not unusual for the reported increase or decrease in sales to be outside of the range projected by analysts. They also are subject to revisions, which over the past year have ranged from zero to about 0.4 percentage point for the second reading of the monthly change.

Analysts Are Questioning the Latest Retail Sales Figures

Not everyone dismissed the data. Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics at Bank of America Corp., said the figures are “likely to remain quite negative” even with possible revisions.

In addition, the bank’s customer credit-card and debit-card data show that “January looks pretty soft as well, so our forward looking indicator suggests some of this softness might actually continue into the start of the new year,” Meyer said on Bloomberg Television.

Read More: Retail-Sales Trend Weakest Since Mid-2016, BofA Data Show

The National Retail Federation said Thursday that it estimates U.S. holiday retail sales in the final two months of the year grew 2.9 percent from a year earlier to $707.5 billion -- less than the 4.3 percent to 4.8 percent growth it was expecting. By NRF’s count, online and other non-store sales rose 11.5 percent in the two-month holiday season.

“Worries over the trade war and turmoil in the stock markets impacted consumer behavior more than we expected,” NRF President Matthew Shay said. “There’s also a question of whether the government shutdown and resulting delay in collecting data might have made the results less reliable. It’s very disappointing that clearly avoidable actions by the government influenced consumer confidence and unnecessarily depressed December retail sales.”

Other indicators showing December weakness include manufacturing surveys and home sales.

In general, the disappointing holiday spending doesn’t bode well for the next round of apparel and department-store results, due in coming weeks. Walmart Inc., the world’s biggest retailer, reports its fourth-quarter results next week. Macy’s Inc., Best Buy Co. and Nordstrom Inc. also report this month. Macy’s Chief Executive Officer Jeff Gennette already warned in January that sales “weakened in the mid-December period and did not return to expected patterns until the week of Christmas.”

Jefferies LLC economist Ward McCarthy also cited unusual online shopping data.

“Taken literally, this data release would indicate that the consumer sector collapsed in December,” he wrote in a note. “This release is such an outlier and so incongruous with the general trend in consumer spending, holiday consumer sales reports and holiday seasons consumer credit data that it does raise suspicions of data reliability.”

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