Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Retail Sales Start Roaring 2020's Boom

 Popular Economics Weekly

It looks like the 2020’s economy is beginning to roar as retail sales jumped 5.3 percent in January 2021, and 7.4 percent since last January. This is just as President Biden’s approximately $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is wending its way through congress.

Advance estimates of U.S. retail and food services sales for January 2021, adjusted for seasonal variation and holiday and trading-day differences, but not for price changes, were $568.2 billion, an increase of 5.3 percent from the previous month, and 7.4 percent above January 2020, said the US Census Bureau report.

Pundits and some economists worry that this is too much “untargeted” money sloshing around the economy, including an additional $1400 per person that will supplement the $600 payments made in January to those making less than $75,000 per person.

Nobel laureate Paul Krugman does not think so, he said in a recent Op-ed, because those that need it will spend it immediately, while the less needy will squirrel it away for another rainy day; a good thing given these uncertain times.

And there is little inflation now, as the Consumer Price Index (CPI) retail inflation measure did not increase at all last month and is up just one percent over the past year.

Sales were strong in every category. Department store chains, Internet retailers, electronic stores and home-furnishing outlets all recorded double digit gains in percentage terms.

Bars and restaurants also registered a nearly 7 percent increase in sales after receipts had fallen three months in a row. Cold weather and new business restrictions imposed after a record increase in coronavirus cases, slammed restaurants toward the end of 2020, but states started to lift restrictions early in the new year as the pandemic began to wane again, reports MarketWatch’s Jeffry Bartash.

“The increase in spending last month was fueled in part by $600 federal stimulus checks for millions of Americans and more generous unemployment benefits. What also helped were loosened state restrictions on business brought on by a sharp decline in coronavirus cases,” said Bartash.

Now is not the time to worry about inflation, in other words. Rising prices increase profits and wages, especially in the recovery stage of this recession. Slow real personal income growth portrayed in this FRED graph has been one reason for slow economic growth since the Great Recession ended some 11 years ago and kept US from spending more on upgrading our deteriorating infrastructure.

Personal income has fluctuated between 2 to 3 percent since then, which is not enough to boost household incomes above the long-term inflation rate. In fact, household income has not risen enough for most Americans to weather such natural disasters as this pandemic, and what is to come with global warming and future geopolitical uncertainty that accompanies a changing climate (droughts, immigration woes, increasing wildfires, hurricanes, etc.)

The Texas freezes and power outages from the current Polar Vortex episode that could last through this weekend are but one example. As reported in the LA Times by a Houston reporter, “Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more severe as the climate crisis worsens. And the U.S. power grid is not prepared to handle the hotter heat storms, more frigid cold snaps and stronger hurricanes of a changing planet.”

What better time is there to prepare for such future emergencies?

Harlan Green © 2021

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