Economy still vulnerable as retail sales fall

Dennis Seid 4/14/09
Economy still vulnerable as retail sales fall
* The President and Fed chairman offer cautionary guidance.
The Associated Press
The recession is easing? Not so fast. An unexpected drop in sales of just about everything from cars to clothes sent a sobering message Tuesday: The economy is still vulnerable.
That cautionary guidance was seconded by President Barack Obama and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, though they had encouraging words as well. Bernanke spoke of “tentative signs” that at least the economy is declining more slowly, and Obama repeated his recent analysis that he sees “glimmers of hope.”
With Americans still losing jobs by the thousands, a major fear is that people will cut back even further on their spending, and that could plunge the economy into a sharper tailspin.
Tuesday’s report that retail sales fell 1.1 percent in March deepened concern.
Improvements in a string of other economic reports over the past few weeks – including home and auto sales, home building and other consumer-spending barometers – had raised optimism that the economy’s descent might be slowing.
Obama and Bernanke cited those improvements in separate speeches Tuesday. But they also made clear the economy is not out of danger and that potential pitfalls lie ahead.
“By no means are we out of the woods just yet,” Obama warned in a speech at Georgetown University. “The severity of this recession will cause more job loss, more foreclosures and more pain before it ends. Credit is still not flowing nearly as easily as it should.”
Bernanke, speaking at Morehouse College in Atlanta, said, “Recently, we have seen tentative signs that the sharp decline in economic activity may be slowing.” But he, too, cautioned that hopes for a lasting recovery hinge on how soon the government succeeds in bolstering the financial markets and stimulating more normal borrowing by consumers and businesses.
“We will not have a sustainable recovery without a stabilization of our financial system and credit markets,” he said.
Both Bernanke and Obama said progress is being made on that front and policymakers will keep working to ease financial and credit stresses.
Historically, the path to any economic recovery isn’t a straight line. It’s often marked by lurches both forward and backward.
“I liken it to a lawnmower engine that hasn’t been started in a while,” said Richard Yamarone, economist at Argus Research Corp. “You’re going to get some sputtering of activity, and you’ll get a couple of false firings as well.”
Yamarone and many other analysts believe the economy in the April-to-June quarter is still declining, perhaps at a rate of 2 to 2.5 percent, but not nearly as much as it had been earlier.
A big drop in auto sales led the March decline in retail sales. Business was way down at clothing stores, appliance outlets and furniture stores, too.
Part of the retail sales decrease was simply because prices have fallen, depressing sales totals. And because of the late Easter holiday, which fell in April this year, shoppers probably delayed some of their shopping.
Given such volatility, Frank Badillo, senior economist at consulting group TNS Retail Forward, said he looked only at the combined January-through-March retail sales figures, which were in line with his expectations.
“I don’t see any reason for alarm in these numbers,” Badillo said.


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