Retail sales will fall sharply in March due to a dismal jobs report, cold weather and continued strain on low-income families from the payroll tax hikes.
“When we look at the employment numbers, they were very disappointing” said Michael Brown, an economist at Wells Fargo. Brown predicts a 0.1 percent growth in retail in March. Retail sales had been accelerating: they grew 1.1 in February, 0.5 percent in December, and 0.4 percent in November.
A weak jobs report now has analysts wondering if the economy is heading into a “spring slowdown”. The pattern of economic deceleration has happened since 2010.
“We [Wells Fargo] are calling for a spring slowdown again, we expect that that trend will hold again,” said Brown.
The economy added 88,000 jobs in March. It had been adding an average of 169,000 jobs over the past 12 months.
Cold weather in March is expected to keep shoppers indoors, discouraging them from upgrading their wardrobes for the spring season. “Those are peak times that retailers are out trying to do their best,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist for the National Retail Federation.
Kleinhenz says the NRF doesn’t offer monthly predictions, but expects annual retail growth to be 3.5 percent.
A slowdown from new payroll taxes is starting to take its toll. The taxes, which increased from 4.2 to 6.2 percent in January, are constraining spending on middle and low-income buyers. A family living off of $40,000 a year, for example, would have to cut $800 from their annual budget.
Spending did not immediately shrink from these taxes, as many analysts expected. But the personal savings rate has been shrinking since their introduction in January, which is at its lowest point since 2008. When people’s savings run out, they will eventually cut back on spending.
Still, higher income families, aided by a recovering housing market and record stock prices, are fairing better. “It doesn’t appear that the higher income people have cut back on spending,” said Kleinhenz. The luxury car market is an example of such spending, which has grown 11 percent this year, compared to 8 percent for the auto industry as a whole.
Still, the weak jobs report makes it clear that spending in the upper echelons alone is not enough to maintain momentum in the economy.