WASHINGTON D.C. – The Federal Reserve approved its third rate increase this year, hiking the short-term interest rate on Wednesday to a range of 2 to 2.25 percent.
The move indicates that the nation’s central bank may soon be able to take a back seat for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis and allow the economy to steer itself.
Wednesday’s widely expected rate hike of one-quarter of a percentage point comes after the Federal Open Market Committee’s scheduled two-day policy meeting, and is a response to a robust economic landscape that includes low unemployment, an uptick in wage growth, and sweeping corporate tax reform.
“The near-term outlook appears to be steady as she goes,” said Jack Kleinhenz of the National Retail Federation. “Rarely are so many economic gauges of the U.S. economy so strong.”
The new rate also signals that the White House’s tit-for-tat global trade actions have so far had a muted impact on the nation’s nine-year economic growth streak.
The Fed kept rates artificially low for seven years after the Great Recession, zeroing out the rate in December 2008 and only raising it again in December 2015, under Janet Yellen’s chairmanship. Since then, Yellen raised the benchmark rate by one-quarter of a percentage point just four more times. After taking over from Yellen in February this year, Trump-appointed Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome “Jay” Powell has raised rates three consecutive times.
Chairman Powell has made note of the Fed’s precarious position as the economy heats up, saying last month that the Fed currently faces two main risks — either “moving too fast and needlessly shortening the expansion” or “moving too slowly and risking a destabilizing overheating.”
But Trump slammed Chairman Powell earlier this year, saying he was “not happy” about this year’s series of rate hikes.
“I don’t necessarily agree with it,” Trump told CNBC in July. “I’m not thrilled, because every time we go up, they want to raise rates again. But at the same time, I’m letting them do what they feel is best.”
Wednesday’s FOMC meeting was the first for economics professor Richard Clarida, who was confirmed earlier this month for a four-year term as Federal Reserve vice chairman. The board of governors has three remaining vacancies.
If wage growth doesn’t kick into high gear, increasing inflation could swallow even the minimal improvement in purchasing power workers have attained.
A slowing rate of job growth in July nonetheless managed to pull some workers off the sidelines, but wage growth mired at 2.7 percent began to elicit concerns that wages will fail to keep up with inflation as the economy picks up steam.
“I don’t think you want things to be ‘great’ because great means the Fed worries about inflation and the economy moving ahead too quickly,” said Scott Wren, senior global equity strategist at the Wells Fargo Investment Institute. “The expansion killer is the Fed making a mistake, moving too fast. We don’t want to see great right now. We just want to see good.”
Upward revisions to May and June added a combined total of 59,000 jobs added, bringing the monthly average to 224,000 over the past three months. “In the past, summer months tend to show large employment fluctuations due to the timing of seasonal hiring,” National Retail Federation chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a statement. The retail sector eked out a small gain of 7,000 despite a loss of 32,000 jobs, largely due to the closure of the Toys R Us chain.
The labor market sectors with the most notable growth in July were professional and business services, which added 51,000 jobs; and manufacturing and healthcare/social assistance, which added 37,000 and 34,000 jobs, respectively.
“U.S. manufacturing is flexing some muscle right now,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.com, but noted these and other labor market gains could be threatened by President Donald Trump’s protectionist sentiments. “Obviously, there are huge risks associated with the trade dispute,” he said.
If wage growth doesn’t kick into high gear, increasing inflation could swallow even the minimal improvement in purchasing power workers have attained in the recovery so far.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the brunt of the tariffs yet,” said Arne Kalleberg, professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Manufacturing and agriculture-related jobs would be especially at risk if China or the European Union enact retaliatory sanctions, he said.
Derailing the current labor market expansion could hurt the most at-risk members of the workforce the most and slow mediocre wage growth even further, even as rising inflation erodes the value of Americans’ pay.
“We have to think about the fact that inflation’s running at a 2 percent rate,” Hamrick said. “We’re on this rising interest rate trajectory.” If wage growth doesn’t kick into high gear, increasing inflation could swallow even the minimal improvement in purchasing power workers have attained in the recovery so far.
Economists say demographics are one factor behind wage growth that trails what most experts consider the low end of healthy wage growth by nearly a full percentage point. As baby boomers leave the workforce, the younger and generally less-experienced workers taking their place don’t earn as much.
A yawning skills gap is another. Economists say a robust economy is drawing people back into the workforce, but this could be one of the factors holding down wage growth. “What businesses are having to do is they can’t find people with skills, so they have to hire them at unskilled wages and then train them,” said Dan North, chief economist at Euler Hermes North America.
The data bears this out: Compared to the topline unemployment rate of 3.9 percent, the broader U-6 measure of unemployment fell three-tenths of a percentage point to 7.5 percent in July, a percentage point lower than it was a year ago.
“Of course, the people hired without skills have lower productivity,” North added. The upshot is that unskilled workers aren’t being paid as much, which economists theorize could be holding down wage gains.
With fewer skills and lower productivity, these would be the workers most likely to lose out if companies have to start cutting jobs in response to a trade war-initiated slowdown. “I always worry about the quality of these jobs,” Kalleberg said. “There’s very little bargaining power on the part of workers.“
Consumers are increasing their spending, which may be a plus for the stock market during a period of volatility. U.S. retail sales rose in March more than forecast after three straight monthly declines, with consumers buying more big-ticket items. This evidence of healthy sentiment could drive markets higher in the second quarter.
Retail sales increased 0.6% in March after a 0.1% drop in February, the Commerce Department reported on Monday. The January retail data was revised down to show that sales declined by 0.2%, steeper than the previously reported 0.1% dip.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast that retail sales would rise by 0.4% in March. Year-over-year, retail sales increased 4.5%.
There have been hopes that with many Americans seeing their paychecks increase because of tax cut savings, consumer spending would climb. Such an increase, in turn, would be good for the economy overall, with more than two-thirds of U.S. economic growth attributed to consumer spending.
The latest monthly retail sales data suggested that tax reform is padding consumers’ wallets and that they are more than happy to spend their savings, according to some analysts.
“These are strong numbers, no doubt surging from the shot in the arm tax reform provided,” said Mike Loewengart, vice president of investment strategy at E*Trade. “Consumers are seeing more in their paycheck, and it appears they’ve gone shopping—certainly good news for investors.”
Stock markets have gone through a volatile period and are seeking direction.
“With most earnings reports arriving in the next few weeks, this is a pivotal time for a market that is in search of something positive to latch on to,” Loewengart added. “It appears, at least at the moment, strong economic fundamentals just simply aren’t enough to fire the bull rally back up.”
National Retail Federaton Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz called the retail sales report a “healthy spending report” despite market volatility, unseasonable weather and uncertain economic policies. “Consumers continue to show resiliency in spending, and these numbers reflect how the economy is performing with a strong job market, gains in wages, improvements in confidence, rising home value and judicious use of credit,” he said.
The March results build on the higher sales seen in February, which was up 0.2% over January and 4.3% year-over-year. These numbers exclude sales of automobiles and at gasoline stations and restaurants.
The NRF numbers are based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which said overall March retail sales — including automobiles, gasoline and restaurants — were up a seasonally adjusted 0.6% from February, and up 4.5% year-over-year.
“This is a healthy spending report despite market volatility, unseasonable weather and uncertain economic policies,” said NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz in a statement. “Consumers continue to show resiliency in spending, and these numbers reflect how the economy is performing with a strong job market, gains in wages, improvements in confidence, rising home values and judicious use of credit. The biggest risk to spending is in market fluctuations that could affect confidence, but we expect these basic improvements in economic fundamentals to continue.”
All sectors except sporting goods saw sales improvements in March on a year-by-year basis. Sporting goods stores saw sales declines of 0.9%.
Retail sales data issued today by the United States Department of Commerce and the National Retail Federation (NRF) showed modest sequential gains and varying annual gains.
Commerce reported that April retail sales were up 0.3% annually at $497.6 billion and 0.8% ahead of March’s $496.1 billion. It also noted that total retail sales from February through April were up 4.6% annually.
April also represents the second straight month of retail sales gains, as March snapped a three-month stretch of declines from December through February.
Commerce reported that retail trade sales were up 0.4% in April over March and 4.8% annually. Non-store sales, which include e-commerce, saw a 9.6% annual gain. Furniture and home furniture sales were up 6.1% annually, and electronics ad appliance store sales were up 1.7%.
The NRF reported that April retail sales increased 0.4% on a seasonally adjusted basis compared to March and were up 2.8% annually. NRF’s data excludes retail sales from automobiles, gasoline stations, and restaurants.
“Retail sales growth remains solid and on track as households benefit from tax cuts even though they have faced unseasonable weather and bumpy financial markets,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “The tax cuts and higher savings levels should help consumers afford the recent surge in gasoline prices. And a solid job market, recent wage gains and elevated confidence translate into ongoing spending support.”
NRF’s three-month moving average through April saw a 4.1% annual increase, which matches up with the organization’s estimate of 2018 retail sales rising between 3.8%-4.4% annually.
Various retail sectors saw solid performances in April based on NRF data, including:
● Online and other non-store sales were up 12.2 percent year-over-year and up 0.6 percent over March seasonally adjusted
● Furniture and home furnishings stores were up 5.8 percent year-over-year and up 0.8 percent from March seasonally adjusted
● Building materials and garden supply stores were up 5.6 percent year-over-year and up 0.4 percent from March seasonally adjusted
● Electronics and appliance stores were up 2.2 percent year-over-year but down 0.1 percent from March seasonally adjusted
Retail sales in April (excluding sales from auto dealers, gas stations, building materials and food services) rose 0.4% from March 2018, according to the latest monthly report from the U.S. Commerce Department’s census bureau. March sales were revised upward to a 0.8% rise, from the previously reported 0.6%.
Nine of the 13 major retail categories posted positive sales results in April compared with March, according to retail think tank Coresight Research’s breakdown of the report. Clothing and accessories rose 1.4%, furniture sales rose 0.8% and e-commerce rose 0.6%. But health and personal care sales fell 0.4%, and electronics and appliance sales fell 0.1%, the Census Bureau said.
E-commerce sales in the period rose 9.6% from last year, while overall retail sales excluding auto rose 4.8% year over year, according to the government’s report.
April marked another month of robust sales for retailers, despite a cold spring in many parts of the country, thanks to an overall healthy economy.
“Spending was sluggish at the start of 2018, but April marked the second consecutive month of growth,” according to a report from Coresight CEO Deborah Weinswig. “More broadly, consumer spending has been lifted by a falling unemployment rate, which in April was a historically low 3.9%. Measures of consumer confidence have remained high in recent months, which economists attribute to the recent tax cuts, a healthy labor market and broader economic growth.”
And tax cuts could help mitigate the rise in gas prices this year, according to NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz.
“Retail sales growth remains solid and on track as households benefit from tax cuts even though they have faced unseasonable weather and bumpy financial markets,” Kleinhenz said in a statement emailed to Retail Dive. “And a solid job market, recent wage gains and elevated confidence translate into ongoing spending support.”
But it’s worth looking at just where shoppers are spending the most: As first quarter reports have come in for 39 retail chains tracked by Retail Metrics, retail earnings are up 15.8% year over year, with just four retailers accounting for all that reported growth. Drugstore chains CVS and Walgreens both turned in “sizeable” first quarter surprises that accounted for about 300 basis points of reported earnings growth, according to a Retail Metrics note emailed to Retail Dive. Costco was responsible for another 300 basis points of earnings growth and Home Depot, which reported a 20% year-over-year first quarter operating income boost this week, is responsible for 1,000 basis points.
Without Home Depot, CVS, Walgreens or Costco however, reported Q1 retail earnings fell 0.7%, according to Retail Metrics.
E-commerce continues to outpace in-store sales, according to two indices of U.S. retailers from ProShares, measuring year to date sales through market close on May 14. The Solactive-ProShares Bricks and Mortar Retail Store Index (which includes leading legacy retail companies) fell 3.08%, while the ProShares Online Retail Index (which tracks tracks U.S. and non-U.S. retailers primarily selling online or through other non-store channels with a market capitalization of at least $500 million, including Amazon) rose 19.26%.
The National Retail Federation said that retail sales in April showed a 2.8 percent year-over-year increase in the U.S retail market, excluding auto sales, gasoline stations and restaurants.
“Retail sales growth remains solid and on track as households benefit from tax cuts even though they have faced unseasonable weather and bumpy financial markets,” said Jack Kleinhenz, the chief economist for the National Retail Federation, based in Washington, D.C. “The tax cuts and higher savings levels should help consumers afford the recent surge in gasoline prices. And a solid job market, recent wage gains and elevated confidence translate into ongoing spending support.”
The NRF broke down April results for different retail categories. Results were mixed for apparel stores. Sales for clothing and clothing-accessory stores dipped 0.4 percent in a year-over-year basis. However, April apparel sales were up 1.4 percent compared to the previous month.
Online and other non-store sales were up 12.2 percent in a year-over-year comparison. Compared to the previous month, sales increased 0.6 percent for e-retailers.
Ken Perkins, president of the market-research group Retail Metrics, also posted a recent note saying business was good in April. He said that expectations for the month had been low because cold weather was predicted for much of the U.S. Wall Street analysts also forecast that many consumers may have been suffering from shopping fatigue. The nation’s retailers experienced a spike in business because Easter took place on April 1.
In Perkins’s research note, he discussed the April performance for L Brands, the parent company of Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works. Bath & Body Works reported a 6 percent same-store-sales gain during April. Victoria’s Secret posted a 2 percent decline.
April’s retail sales were 0.4 percent higher compared to March and 2.8 percent higher compared to a year ago.
The sales data, from the National Retail Federation, does not include sales at gas stations, restaurants or auto sales.
“Retail sales growth remains solid and on track as households benefit from tax cuts even though they have faced unseasonable weather and bumpy financial markets,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said in a press release on the data. “The tax cuts and higher savings levels should help consumers afford the recent surge in gasoline prices. And a solid job market, recent wage gains and elevated confidence translate into ongoing spending support.”
According to the National Retail Federation, retail industry employment in the U.S. increased by 28,800 jobs seasonally adjusted in May over April and 100,000 jobs unadjusted year-over-year.
The numbers exclude automobile dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants. Overall, U.S. businesses added 223,000 jobs, the NRF said, citing U.S. Labor Department figures.
May’s retail employment follows an upwardly revised combined increase of 19,300 jobs for March and April. The three-month moving average in May increased by 19,000 jobs.
The sectors demonstrating the strongest employment growth were general merchandise stores, up 13,400 jobs; clothing and clothing accessory stores, up 6,500 jobs; and building and garden supplies, up 6,000 jobs. Employment declines occurred in health and personal care stores, down 800 jobs, and non-store including e-commerce, down 1,100 jobs.
“May’s rebound in jobs together with yesterday’s report of solid income growth and the rise in consumer confidence points to the economy functioning very well,” said Jack Kleinhenz, NRF chief economist. “Solid fundamentals in the job market are encouraging for retail spending, as employment gains generate additional income for consumers and consequently increase spending.”