by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street:
But something funny happened on the way to the headlines.
In describing the retail-sales data released today, words like “slumps” and “declines” kept cropping up in the headlines. This referred to the seasonally adjusted month-over-month data, so the percentage change from December retail sales (peak holiday selling season) to January retail sales (peak merchandise-return season). This comparison is only possible with gigantic seasonal adjustments that try to smooth away the holiday selling peak and the post-holiday hangover in a way that, hopefully, the index ticks up a bit from December to January.
In today’s reading, this change in seasonally adjusted total retail sales – includes food services and drinking places such as restaurants and bars – ticked down 0.3% from December to January, triggering the “slumps” and “declines” in the headlines. But this figure is only as good as the seasonal adjustments. Here is what the month-over-month percentage change of total retail sales looks like not seasonally adjusted:
Not seasonally adjusted, total retail sales plunged 21% from December to January, but they plunged between 19% and 23% in prior Januaries. Hence the gigantic seasonal adjustments needed to smoothen out this wildly gyrating seasonal data.
But on a not-seasonally-adjusted basis, the year-over-year growth in total retail sales was a healthy 5.1% in January, compared to January 2017, in the same range of the year-over-year changes in prior months and at the higher end of the spectrum since 2012:
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