Thursday, June 11, 2009

Data data everywhere and quite a lot to think

Interesting conundrums coming from this morning's retail sales and unemployment numbers. The two are closely linked - if you don't have a job, you can't spend money.

So on the unemployment front, jobless claims were better than expected but still came in at 601,000 new claims. Let's put that into perspective: if all those newly unemployed folks were in Alaska, the state would have an 87% unemployment rate.

Continuing unemployment claims, the number of those people who have been unemployed for awhile, has now climbed to 6.8 million people. Once again, putting that into perspective: the population of the state of Washington is 6.5 million people. The continuing claims, then, could be visualized by taking the entire population of the state of Washington and adding half of the Alaskans.

I understand those two states are way over on the left coast and not top of mind for many people other than those of us who live there, but even if you live in NYC, you have to admit that it is a lot of people who aren't going to be spending money.

So what's up with the retail sales numbers then? The headline number came in up 0.5% as expected. But... that's a month over month number, meaning that May sales were a little bit better than April sales. But May 2009 sales were 9.6% BELOW May 2008 sales. And the biggest sales increases came from gasoline and building materials. If you own a car, you know that gas prices are up recently, so that shouldn't be a shock.

What's the explanation for the building materials results? Lumber prices were up 8.4% for the month of May, so that's a big part of it. Buying a foreclosure? You can bet that the previous evictees didn't leave the place in pristine condition. Plus, if you are going to be spending more time in your home, you spruce it up. Those little niggling items on the Honey-Do lists are often a cheap way to spend the weekend.

It seems to me that commodities might have driven more of the retail sales numbers than some sort of a magical rebound by the consumer. And given May comp store sales results and my mall walks over the past few weeks, I can tell you that the consumer isn't spending like they have money... they're spending like every dollar in their pockets might be their last.

I'm not feeling giddy about any of this. But if you are, more power to you.

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