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Retail Sales at All-Time Low -16.4%, Plus Empire State & Production

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Friday, May 15, 2020

A new Retail Sales report for the month of April have come out this morning, and they are the latest to sink to all-time lows: -16.4% was the worst monthly read since this index began in early 1992. It’s worse than the -12.5% analysts were expecting, and nearly double the upwardly revised -8.3% reported for March. The headline figures may be striking, but come as a surprise to no one, considering our pandemic era.

Stripping out big-ticket auto sales, the numbers get even uglier: -17.2% is far from the expected -9.0%, which itself doubled the March figure of -4.5%. Ex-autos and gasoline, we see -16.2%. Gasoline sales themselves slipped 28% for the month. If there is anything to counter the bad news here, it is that these numbers — because they are seasonally adjusted and annualized — may not be depicting the true picture of monthly retail sales. The reason for this should be obvious: this is in no way a normal season on which to adjust.

We also see a new Empire State survey for May, and again we’re looking at truly depressing numbers: -48.2 on the headline. However, this does beat the -63 analysts were looking for, as well as the all-time low reached last month of -78.2. This gauge of regional production in one of the most populous states — as well as the single-hardest-hit by coronavirus — is now down 3 straight months and 4 out of the last 12, for a trailing 12-month average of -9.8. It’s the ugly truth. But there’s no reason to believe it’s permanent.

Industrial Production and Capacity Utilization, also for April, have been released 15 minutes before the opening bell — both have also set new all-time lows. Production came in at -11.2%, but that’s still better than the -12% expected. Utilization rates amounted to 64.9%, a couple percentage points beneath the previous all-time low. Again, more “pig through the python” reality. Industrial Production reads have been with us since 1919, while Capacity Utilization began in 1967.

Market indexes staged an impressive rebound yesterday, swinging about 800 points on the Dow before Thursday’s close. But the blue-chips are giving some of this back in today’s pre-market: -200 on the Dow, -120 for the Nasdaq and -25 points on the S&P 500. We’ll see if traders can work their magic again before the market closes for the weekend.

Mark Vickery
Senior Editor

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