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December Retail Sales Reflect Resilient US Consumer Spending

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Americans Close Out the Year with Stronger Retail Spending

In a surprising display of economic resilience, American consumers boosted retail sales faster in December, capping off a year marked by robust spending. The Commerce Department’s report on Wednesday revealed a notable increase of 0.6% in retail sales from the previous month, surpassing November’s 0.3% gain and economists’ expectations. Notably, department stores experienced a substantial surge of 3% in December, leading the various retail categories.

Strong Holiday Season for American Retailers

The latest data indicates that the holiday season contributed significantly to the surge, with sales at car dealerships, clothing stores, and online platforms also registering solid growth. However, some sectors, including gas stations, furniture stores, and personal-care shops, witnessed a decline in sales during December. The positive momentum in spending is closely tied to the robust state of the labor market, with continuous job growth and a steady unemployment rate of 3.7%.

A Slowing Economy, Yet No Clear Signs of Recession

While the US economy is expected to cool gradually in 2024, recent reports suggest it may not experience a sharp downturn. Economists, including those from Wells Fargo, revised their forecasts, anticipating continued growth over the next two years rather than a recession. The Federal Reserve’s efforts to control inflation by raising interest rates have shown progress, potentially leading to a “soft landing” scenario.

Retail Sales Beat Estimates for the Sixth Straight Month

Analysts point to the positive retail sales figures in December as a critical factor supporting the notion of a “soft landing.” Global head of market strategy at TradeStation David Russell noted that a recession seems increasingly unlikely, considering the consistent beating of retail sales estimates for the sixth consecutive month.

Fed’s Dilemma: Balancing Inflation and Economic Growth

The Federal Reserve’s focus on inflation control, marked by a series of interest rate hikes, could face challenges if economic data continues to surpass expectations. Some investors anticipate rate cuts in March, but Fed Governor Christopher Waller highlighted potential risks that could delay or alter this expectation. The Fed’s preferred inflation gauge, the Personal Consumption Expenditures price index, rose 2.6% in November, gradually declining from earlier peaks.

Patient Approach to Rate Cuts

Waller emphasized the need for a systematic and careful approach to rate cuts, considering the overall health of economic activity and labor markets. He expressed that with economic activity and inflation gradually decreasing, there is no rush to move or cut rates as rapidly as in the past.

December Retail Sales Exceed Expectations, Fueled by Consumer Resilience

The release of December retail sales data showcased the continued resilience of US consumer spending, defying concerns of economic slowdown. Sales grew by 0.6%, surpassing economists’ expectations of a 0.4% increase. The positive momentum is attributed to consumers’ willingness to spend during the holidays, supported by real income gains. While the narrative is expected to persist in early 2024, some economists anticipate a slowdown as the job market deteriorates later in the year.

Key Highlights from December Retail Sales

Nine of the 13 categories highlighted in the release reported increases from the previous month. Notable gains were observed in clothing and clothing accessories and nonstore retailers. Conversely, sales at health and personal care stores declined, along with sales at gasoline stations.

In summary, the robust December retail sales figures suggest that the US economy may experience a “soft landing,” with consumer spending playing a crucial role. The Federal Reserve’s cautious approach to rate cuts reflects a delicate balance between controlling inflation and ensuring sustainable economic growth. As the year progresses, analysts will closely monitor economic indicators to gauge the trajectory of the US economy.

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