Why You Should Blow Off the Retail Sales Report

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- You have two choices in looking at today's retail sales report: You can take it at face value, and worry that sales barely grew in April and missed forecasts by a good margin. Or you can scratch your head and say, "That's not right.''

The second is the better bet. The details of retail, as of April's preliminary numbers released Tuesday morning, don't jibe with other data that show auto sales doing fine and consumer confidence at its highest point in six years. In other words, when the economy created 288,000 jobs in a month, according to the Department of Labor, and not quite two weeks later the Census Bureau says consumers slashed highly discretionary spending at restaurants and bars, it's best not to get too worked up about it. And if you want to trade it, you might want to bet that it's simply wrong.

First, let's do the numbers. The Census Bureau says retail sales rose 0.1% in April, well below expectations for a 0.4% gain. And way below the 1.5% jump in March, which was revised upward this morning.

The weirdness is in the details.  Commerce says restaurant and bar spending dropped 0.9% as jobs became more plentiful and confidence rose. Growth at home-repair stores, at 0.4%, was less than half as fast as in March. And sales at auto dealers rose 0.7%, far below the 3.9% seen in March.


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Trouble is, none of that is consistent with external data. Consumer confidence is near six-year highs in both Thomson Reuters' survey and a similar consumer comfort survey by Bloomberg. Auto sales expectations have held firm for about 16 million units to 16.2 million this year. Even gas prices are expected to be dropping, and their spring peak was lower this year than last, according to GasBuddy.com analyst Tom Kliza.

Cheaper gas, more jobs, and higher confidence all point to better growth than this. So does the recent history of upward revisions to the preliminary retail sales report as growth accelerates coming out of the winter.

To turn George Santayana on his head, those who choose to embrace that history may be pleased to repeat it.

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At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.