Retail sales: If you ignore cars and gas it’s not so bad

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I’m not saying you should ignore cars and gas, but I always love playing with the numbers in reports like this.

The headline is that retail sales were down 2.8% in October, the worst one month decline since this particular economic series was launched in 1992. That historical fact is not quite as ominous as it might sound, given that the last real consumer recession was in 1990-1991 (2001 was a business-led downturn in which consumers played only a peripheral role). But -2.8% is still pretty scary.

Except that the hardest-hit category by far, gasoline stations–down 12.7%–was down largely because gas prices were down. It wasn’t that consumers were cutting back. It’s that they were saving money. Take gas stations out of the equation and the retail spending decline is 1.5%. Take gas stations and cars (motor vehicle & parts dealers) out, and the decline is 0.5%. Then again, if you take all the stuff that went down out of the equation, retail sales were up. Which means precisely nothing at all.

For me at least, October was a month when the world sort of stood still. I didn’t buy much of anything but food. It’s the November-December-January numbers that are going to tell us whether we’re facing a consumer spending decline or a consumer spending collapse.