The data should give the Fed some relief as it struggles to tame inflation.
Wednesday’s data should give the Federal Reserve some relief as it faces a tough decision next week, trying to balance price stability and financial stability following the collapse of several banks. The 0.4% drop in retail sales was driven largely by auto, restaurant and gasoline purchases, the Census Bureau reported on Wednesday. But after stripping away those volatile components along with building materials, the control group—which feeds into the calculation of gross domestic product—rose by 0.5% in February. Markets had expected a decline of 0.3% for the control group. While the data was not adjusted for inflation, low inflation in goods, which make up most of total retail sales except for food services, should keep the change in sales volume of the control group in positive territory. The increase in sales of core categories, in addition to an upward revision from an increase of 1.7% to 2.3% for the prior month, should add more upside risks to our forecast of GDP in the first quarter, which had been 1.9% before Wednesday’s data came out. The monthly change in retail sales in the first couple months of the year should be taken with more than a grain of salt because of the volatility in seasonal factors. At the same time, it does not reflect what is happening inside the services sector, where most of the spending takes place. Barring what might spill over from the current instability in the banking sector, the data is consistent with our forecast of a slowdown in economic activities in the first half of the year before the economy tips into a recession in the second half.