Cooling Off as the Delta Variant Strikes
Signs are mounting that economic conditions are softening, putting economic growth at risk of moderation. Several reports measuring consumer behavior, business activity, and the housing market released last week showed just that. Moreover, most of these reports reflect conditions in July, before COVID cases began to significantly rise and threaten households and businesses with new rounds of restrictions.
Consumers Pull Back
The highlight of the week came early with the release of July retail sales, which reported a 1.1% decline over the month, the third monthly decline this year. Consumers continue to shift spending away from durable goods that they stocked up on during the worst of the pandemic, such as cars, furniture, and home improvement products, to in-person services, many of which are not even included in retail sales numbers, such as spending at hotels, motels, travel agencies, entertainment venues, and salons.
Sales at bars and restaurants, which are included in the report, rose for the fifth month in a row, climbing by 1.7% in July, and sales at gasoline stations were up by 2.4% as more people took to the road for summer travel. Spending at auto dealerships fell by 3.9% in July, at building materials stores by 1.2%, and at furniture and home furnishing stores by 0.6%. Clothing sales fell unexpectedly by 2.6% in July after ratcheting up in June in what was thought to be a sign of a return-to-office wardrobe refresh.
Later in the week, consumer sentiment figures in the University of Michigan’s Survey of Consumers declined to multi-year lows. Consumer confidence fell sharply to its lowest level since December 2011, mostly due to the spread of the delta variant and its potential to slow economic growth, while inflation fears were also growing. Consumers indicated weakening confidence in both current economic conditions and expectations.
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