Tag Archives: retail sales

Precious Metals, Mining Stocks, Housing Market – What’s Next?

“The housing market is 100% a function of the Fed’s money printing.  Half the money the Fed printed, $2.2 trillion, went directly into the housing market.”

Analysts and financial media meatheads look at the $4.5 trillion created by the Fed and truly believe that it wasn’t money printing because it’s “backed” by Treasury bonds and mortgages.  But this is pure ignorance.  Not taken into consideration is the amount of credit and debt issuance enabled by using the $4.5 trillion as the “reserve capital.”  It’s fractional banking on steroids.

As the U.S. financial system reaches its limit on the amount of debt that can be serviced from the current level of wealth output, what happens next?  We’re already seeing what happens in the housing market per the fact that the homebuilder  stocks are in an “official” bear market, with some of them down over 30% since late January.

Then what?  The Fed will have to print multiples of the original amount it printed or face systemic collapse. At that point the precious metals sector will soar beyond anyone’s imagination at this point in time.

Phil Kennedy (Kennedy Financial) invited me to discuss these issues on his podcast.  Phil’s podcasts blend truthseeking, facts, humor, humility and sarcasm.  It’s  well-worth the time spent to listen:

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If you are interested in ideas for taking advantage of the inevitable systemic reset that  will hit the U.S. financial and economic system, check out either of these newsletters:  Short Seller’s Journal information and more about the Mining Stock Journal here:  Mining Stock Journal information.

Gold And Silver: Similar To 2008

In 2008, gold was taken from $1020 to $700 and silver was pounded from $21 to  $7 during the period of time that Bear Stearns, Lehman and the U.S. financial system was collapsing.  The precious metals were behaving inversely to what would have been expected as the global financial system melted down.   Massive Central Bank intervention was at play.

Currently the prices of gold and silver are being dismantled by what appears to be massive hedge fund shorting of Comex paper gold.  As of last Tuesday, the “managed money” trader category as detailed in the Commitment of Traders report showed that the hedge funds were short a record amount of paper gold.

As of yesterday the open interest in Comex paper gold was about 17,000 contracts higher than the open interest shown in last week’s COT report.  This represents another 1.7 million ozs – or 48 tonnes – of paper gold that has been dumped on the market.  It is highly probable, if not a certainty, that most of the increase in short interest is attributable to hedge fund algos chasing the paper price of gold lower.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) has been actively intervening in the physical gold market during July, as detailed by Robert Lambourne, a consultant to GATA:

Use of gold swaps and gold derivatives by the Bank for International Settlements, the gold broker for most central banks, increased by about 17 percent in July, according to the bank’s monthly report…The BIS’ July Statement of Account gives summary information on its use of gold swaps and gold-related derivatives in the month. The information is not sufficient to calculate a precise amount of gold-related derivatives, including swaps, but the bank’s total estimated exposure as of July 31 was about 485 tonnes of gold versus about 413 tonnes as of June 30.

That is an increase of about 72 tonnes or 17 percent. The increase came as there increasingly appeared to be a correlation between the gold price and the valuation of the Chinese yuan, both of which fell substantially during the month.

The BIS refuses to explain what it is doing in the gold market and for whom, engendering suspicion that it is helping one or more of its members to manipulate the currency markets through deception.  To place the bank’s use of gold swaps in context, its current exposure of 485 tonnes is higher than the gold reserves of all but 10 countries. (documentation and links: BIS gold market intervention increased by 17% in July)

While visible evidence of a declining gold price can be seen with Comex futures prices and the daily London gold price “fix,” the BIS is operating in the physical market to increase the supply of physical gold available for bullion banks on the hook to deliver physical gold to the countries buying large quantities of physical gold on a daily basis.  As long as the BIS can ensure the flow of physical gold remains uninterrupted, the demand for physical gold will not offset the effort to take-down the price of gold in the paper derivatives markets.

The effort to push down  the price of gold is to silence the alarm gold provides to signal global systemic distress. It’s not just the emerging market economies  and China. The U.S. economy, based on all the private sector data I dig up an analyze on a daily basis, hit a wall sometime between March and May.

This is most evident in the housing market nationwide, which  has been rapidly deteriorating (notwithstanding a few areas that may still have some flaming embers of activity).  Just one supporting data-point is  mortgage purchase applications, which have declined each week over the past 5 weeks. This is not a good omen for the housing market during the seasonally peak selling months. We know it’s not an inventory issue because inventory across the country in all price segments has been rising in most areas and soaring in some of the hottest areas.

While today’s headline retail sales number shows a 0.5% increase in July over June, the “increase” was manufactured for headline purposes by a large downward revision of June’s retail sales numbers. Furthermore, the headline number is a nominal number. Net of true price inflation, retail sales declined. There are other problematic inconsistencies between the Census Bureau-generated numbers and the actual numbers as reported by private-sector companies.

The bottom line is that the prices of gold and silver are being systematically taken down as a mechanism to help cover up the fact that a large-scale financial crisis is going to hit the global financial system. I don’t know the timing, but I would suggest that the EM currency melt-down that began in South America and has spread to the eastern hemisphere represents a series of earthquakes that  are generating a “tsunami.”

While I’m loathe to forecast a price-bottom for gold and the timing of the forthcoming systemic crisis, I would suggest that anyone who is shaken out of their gold, silver and mining stocks right now will regret selling when looking back a year from now.

My Short Seller’s Journal subscribers and I continue to rake in easy money shorting the homebuilder sector. Two of my short-sell picks, Zillow Group and Redfin, have been annihilated in price over the last week. In the last issue I also laid out why Tesla is technically insolvent and likely will be irrelevant as a company within 12-18 months. You can learn more about this weekly newsletter here: Short Seller’s Journal information.

Retail Sales: Inflation Plus Extrapolation

The footnotes are the most interesting section of every financial and economic reports.  They also happens to be least studied section of these reports.  Those who prepare these reports rely on this fact.

The monthly headline retail sales is based to a large extent on estimates, guesswork, invalid assumptions and statistical magic.  Examine the line-item details in this retail sales report link. Note the numerous lines for the May “estimate” that contain “(*).” Then scroll down to the footnotes.

“(*)” indicates, per the footnotes, that “advance estimates are not available for this kind of business.” Footnote 3 further explains that “Advance estimates are based on early reports obtained from a small number of firms…”.   In other words, a significant percentage of the retail sales are based on guesswork and inference.

Scroll further down the retail sales report and Table 2 shows the summary table (Table 2) which presents the month to month percentage change comparison for the latest month’s report.  The data in first four lines in this table is the data used for the headline reports.

Everyone uses these numbers, most without any knowledge whatsoever about the degree to which the data “behind” the numbers is comprised of highly questionable guesswork and unsubstantiated, if not entirely problematic, statistical inference and  adjustment calculus.

Additionally,  there’s a section in the report that explains methodology for the guesswork.  “Advance estimates are computed using a link relative estimator.”  A “link relative estimator” is a polite descriptor that basically means, “we assume that the historical growth rates implied by our historical reports can be applied to growth rate we assume in  this month from the previous month.”  On top of all of that, the Census Bureau then applies its nefarious “seasonal adjustment” factors to the data.  Keep in mind that a significant portion of the data is pulled out their ass.

All of this methodology is explained in further detail in the tabs on the main Monthly Retail Trade page of the Census Bureau. The information spread out in this section substantiates every assertion I have put forth above. It requires sifting through the “how data are collected,” “definitions” and “FAQs.”  I’m probably one of the few analysts curious enough to subject myself to this brain damage.

By the Census Bureau’s own trumped up numbers, most of the “gain” in retail sales from April to May, if indeed a bona fide gain occurred, was from gasoline and clothing inflation.   The numbers in the report are expressed in nominal terms.  They are not adjusted for the effects of price inflation.  Removing the effect of price inflation would yield the change in “unit” volume of retail sales.  This would be the number of true interest.

Finally, the estimated change in retail sales is not consistent with the patterns in consumer credit.  Based on the Fed’s consumer credit report, the use of revolving credit (credit cards, checking overdraft accounts, etc) has been contracting.  With the savings rate at an all-time low, the only way that retail sales unit volume could possibly increase is through the use of credit.  Thus, while guesswork and inflation is driving today’s headline report, in all likelihood unit volume of sales declined.  This latter assertion is indeed supported by recent manufacturing, factor order, durable goods and wage growth data.

Consumer Spending Contraction: Two Charts That Horrify Keynesians

“While the decline in housing activity has been significant and will probably continue for a while longer, I think the concerns we used to hear about the possibility of a devastating collapse—one that might be big enough to cause a recession in the U.S. economy—have been largely allayed…” – Janet Yellen 1/22/07

The propaganda is always laid on the heaviest just ahead of The Fall.  The employment report showing sub-4%, with nearly 96 million working age people not considered part of the labor Force, is possibly the penultimate fabrication.

Consumer spending is more than 70% of the GDP.  A toxic consequence of the Fed’s money printing and near-zero interest rate policy over the last 10 years is the artificial inflation of economic activity fueled by indiscriminate credit creation.

But now the majority of American households, over 75% of which do not have enough cash in the bank to cover an emergency expense, have become over-bloated from gorging at the Fed’s debt trough.

As credit usage slows down or contracts, the economy will go off Bernank’s Cliff much sooner than Helicopter Ben’s 2020 forecast.

The chart above is the year-over-year percentage change in total consumer credit outstanding. Not only is the growth rate decelerating, credit card debt usage is beginning to contract. This the collective prose from the mainstream media is that households are paying down credit card debt with tax savings. But, again, this is a lie. For most households, the increase in the cost of gasoline more than offsets the $90/month the average taxpayer is saving in taxes.

The second chart shows that the growth rate in auto debt fell off Bernanke’s Cliff in early 2017. While the growth rate in the amount of auto debt has appeared to have stabilized – for now – there’s been  a decline in the underlying growth rate in unit sales. This is because the mix of vehicles sold has shifted toward more trucks, which carry a higher sticker price and thus require a bigger auto loan.  Larger loans per vehicle sold, less total units sold.

The Keynesian economic model – as it is applied in the current era to stimulate consumer spending – requires debt issuance to increase at an increasing rate. But as you can see, the rate of credit usage is decreasing. The affects are already reflected by a rapid slow-down in retail, auto and home sales. Most American households are saturated with debt.

The real fun begins as many of these households begin to default. In fact, the delinquency and default rate, in what is supposed to be a healthy economy, on subprime credit card loans and auto debt already exceeds the delinquency/default rate in 2008. Perhaps Bernanke’s Cliff is just around the next bend in the trail…

Is It The Trade War Threats Or Extreme Overvaluation?

The stock market is is more overvalued now than at any time in U.S. history. Sure, permabulls can cherry pick certain metrics that might make valuations appear to be reasonable. But these metrics rely on historical comparisons using GAAP accounting numbers that simply are not remotely comparable over time. Because of changes which have liberalized accounting standards over the last several decades, current GAAP EPS is not comparable to GAAP EPS at previous market tops. And valuation metrics based on revenue/earnings forecasts use standard Wall Street analyst “hockey stick” projections. Perma-bullishness in Wall Street forecasts has become institutionalized. The trade war threats may be the proverbial “final straw” that triggers a severe market sell-off, but the stock market could be cut in half and still be considered overvalued.

The market action has been fascinating. I noticed an interesting occurrence that did not receive any attention from market commentators. Every day last week the Dow/SPX popped up at the open but closed well below their respective highs of the day. Each day featured a pre-market ramp-up in the Dow/SPX/Naz futures. However, the Dow closed lower 3 out of the 5 days and the SPX closed lower 4 out of 5 days. All three indices, Dow/SPX/Naz, closed the week below the previous week’s close.

My point here is that the stock market is still in a topping process. The 10% decline that occurred in late January/February was followed by a rebound that seems to have sucked all of of hope and bullishness back into the market. This is reflected in some of the latest sentiment readings like the Investors Intelligence percentage of bears index, which is still at an all-time low. I also believe that some hedge fund algos are being programmed to sell rallies and buy dips. We’ll have a better idea if this theory is valid over the next couple of months if the market continues to trend sideways to lower.

Deteriorating real economic fundamentals – The most important economic report out last week was retail sales for February, which showed at 0.1% decline from January. This was a surprise to Wall Street’s brain trust, which was expecting a 0.4% gain. Keep in mind the 0.1% decline is nominal. After subtracting inflation, the “unit” decline in sales is even worse. This was the third straight month retail sales declined. The decline was led by falling sales of autos and other big-ticket items. In addition, a related report was out that showed wholesale inventories rose more than expected in January as wholesale sales dropped 0.2%, the biggest monthly decline since July 2016.

Retail and wholesale sales are contracting. What happened to the tax cut’s boost to consumer spending? Based on the huge jump in credit card debt to an all-time high and the decline in the savings rate to a record low in Q4 2017, it’s most likely that the average consumer “pre-spent” the anticipated gain from Trump’s tax cut. Now, consumers have to spend the $95/month on average they’ll get from lower paycheck withholdings paying down credit card debt. As such, retail sales have tanked 3 months in a row.

In fact, the consumer credit report for January, released the week before last, showed a sharp slow-down in credit card usage. In December, credit card debt jumped $6.1 billion. But the January report showed an increase of $780 million. Yes, this is seasonal to an extent. But this was 16.4% below the January 2017 increase of $934 million.

Further reinforcing my thesis that the average household has largely reached a point of “saturation” on the amount of debt that it can support, the Federal Reserve reported that credit card delinquencies on credit cards issued by small banks have risen sharply over the last year. The charge-off rate (bad debt written off and sold to a collection company) soared to 7.2% in Q4 2017, up from 4.5% in Q4 2016. “Small banks” are defined as those outside of the 100 largest banks measured by assets. The charge-off rate at small banks is at its highest since Q1 2010.

Any strength in retail and auto sales related to the replacement cycle from the hurricanes last year are largely done. If you strip out “inconsistent seasonal adjustments,” the decline in February retail sales was 0.48% (John Williams, Shadowstats.com). Given the degree to which the Government agencies tend to manipulate economic statistics, it’s difficult for me to say that the three-month drop in retail sales will continue. However, I suspect that spending by the average household, strapped with a record level of debt, will continue to contract – especially spending on discretionary items.

A portion of the commentary above is an excerpt from the latest Short Seller’s Journal, a weekly newsletter that provides insight on the latest economic data and provides short-sell ideas, including strategies for using options. You can learn more about this newsletter here: Short Seller’s Journal information.

The Slow Death Of The U.S. Economy

Deteriorating real economic fundamentals – The most important economic report out last week was retail sales for February, which showed at 0.1% decline from January. This was a surprise to Wall Street’s brain trust, which was expecting a 0.4% gain. Keep in mind the 0.1% decline is nominal. After subtracting inflation, the “unit” decline in sales is even worse. This was the third straight month retail sales declined. The decline was led by falling sales of autos and other big-ticket items. In addition, a related report was out that showed wholesale inventories rose more than expected in January as wholesale sales dropped 0.2%, the biggest monthly decline since July 2016.

Retail and wholesale sales are contracting. What happened to the tax cut boost to spending? Based on the huge jump in credit card debt to an all-time high and the decline in the savings rate to a record low in Q4 2017, it’s most likely that the average consumer “pre-spent” the anticipated gain from Trump’s tax cut. Now, consumers have to spend the $95/month on average they’ll get from lower paycheck withholdings paying down credit card debt. As such, retail sales have tanked 3 months in a row.

Paul Craig Roberts published a must-read essay on the slow death of the U.S. economy:

As for the full employment claimed by US government reporting agencies, how does full employment coexist with this reported fact from the Dallas Morning News: 100k Applications For 1000 jobs.

Toyota Motor Company advertised the availability of 1,000 new jobs associated with moving its North American headquarters from southern California to Texas and received 100,000 applications. Where did these applications come from when the US has “full employment?”

Clearly, the US does not have full employment. The US has an extremely low rate of labor force participation, because there are no jobs to be had, and discouraged workers who cannot find jobs are not measured in the unemployment rate. Not measuring the unemployed is the basis of the low reported unemployment rate. The official US unemployment rate is just a hoax.

You can read his full commentary here:    America Is Losing Its Economy

Navin R. Johnson Goes To The White House

(Note: with apologies to Carl Reiner and Steve Martin, who directed and co-wrote “The Jerk,” respectively)

Just when you thought Trump’s “leadership” could not get any more insane, he adds a third ring to the circus going on at 1600 Pennsylvania by hiring “economist,” Larry Kudlow to be the head of his economic advisors.

For those of you not familiar with financial market history beyond the last 10 years, which includes the majority of money managers and other sundry financial “professionals,” Kudlow was the chief economist at Bear Stearns from 1987 to 1994.  His tenure at Bear ended infamously when it was revealed that he had developed a nasty cocaine and alcohol addiction at some point in his career.

Prior to Bear, Kudlow began his post-college career as a Democratic political operative.  He parlayed his political connections to get a job as a junior staff “economist” at the Fed.  I use quotations marks around the term “economist” in reference to Kudlow because he does not have a degree beyond undergrad  from the University of Rochester, where he majored in history.

At some point Kudlow, likely for political expedience given the political “winds” of the country in the early 1980’s, became a Republican. He wheeled his political connections into a job in Reagan’s OMB (David Stockman was the Director).  From there, he moved on to Bear Stearns.  The rest is history.

I thought  it would be interesting to peer into the mind of an untrained economist to examine the thought process.  Clearly Kudlow excelled at wheeling and dealing his political connections.  But is he qualified to be the president’s chief economic advisor, especially at a time when the U.S. is systemically collapsing?

In November 2007, Trump’s new Chief Economic Advisor, Larry “Señor Snort” Kudlow wrote an article about the economy titled, “Three More Years of Goldilocks” for which he should receive the Darwin Award (credit goes to @RudyHavenstein for posting the article).  Let’s examine some excerpts – keep in mind Kudlow wrote this about 5 months before Bear Stearns collapsed, triggering a financial crisis that anyone with more than two brain cells could see coming:

“I think the election-year economy will be stronger than the Fed’s estimate — closer to 3 percent. Too much is being made of both the sub-prime credit problem and the housing downturn.” IRD note: Many of us predicted and made big bets on the outcome of “too much being made of the sub-prime credit problem;” a caveman could see what was coming.

“What’s more, the entire market in sub-prime debt is just 1.4 percent of the global equity market.” – IRD note: Maybe 1.4% of a global stock bubble – but that’s like saying a small nuclear bomb in the hands of a madman is just 1.4% of the total stockpile of nuclear weapons. Notice that Kudlow overlooks the $10’s of trillions of OTC derivatives connected to the sub-prime debt, something that was obvious to many.

In issuing a forecast for 2008, Kudlow goes on to say:  “Both consumer spending and business capital investment are advancing…Right now, stocks are in a classic declining-profits correction. This downward trend has so far reduced the Dow by roughly 8 percent. As a rough guess, a 10 percent correction ought to spell the end to the Dow’s slump. And Fed rate cuts should be a big booster for stocks.” IRD note – Where on earth was he getting his data on consumer spending? By November 2007, households that weren’t living in fear of foreclosure were living in fear of losing their job. Between October 2007 and March 2009, the S&P 500 collapsed 58%.

Kudlow’s assertions back in 2007 were a joke.  What happened to Kudlow’s “Goldilocks economy?”  This is the person who is now Trump’s lead economic advisor.   Now Kudlow once again is asserting that, “the profit picture is good. It’s looking real good, and growth is not inflationary just let it rip for heaven’s sakes. The market is going to take care of itself.”

Based on his track record of issuing bullish forecasts right before a collapse,  I’d suggest that the economy and financial system is closer to taking care of itself by  “ripping” off a cliff without a parachute than it is to producing real growth. Retail sales have tanked three months in a row, the housing market appears to be headed south, auto sales plummeting, restaurant sales have dropped 19 out of the last 20 months. Where is this growth you seeing, Larry? Please do tell…

The Four Most Dangerous Words In Investing…

“This time it’s different.” That quote is from Sir John Templeton, a legendary investor who is considered the father of the modern mutual fund industry. For most of the month of December, I’ve been hearing ads from mortgage brokers who are promoting the idea of refinancing your house in order to take care of holiday bills. It reminded of the early 2000’s when then Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan, was urging Americans to use their house as “an ATM” by taking on home equity loans as a means of drawing out cash against home equity for consumption spending. Adding more debt against your house to pay off big credit card balances merely shifts household debt from one creditor to another. What’s worse, it frees up room under the credit card accounts to enable the consumer to take on even more debt.

In reference to the mortgage and housing market collapse in 2008, Ben Bernanke wrote, “Clearly, many of us at the Fed, including me, underestimated the extent of the housing bubble and the risks it posed.” It’s hard to know if that statement is genuine or not, given that many of us saw the housing bubble that was developing as early as 2004.

The Federal Government’s low-to-no down payment programs via Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the FHA, VHA and USDA, combined with the hyper-promotion of cash-out refinancings (bigger 1st mortgages and/or second-lien mortgages) tell me that, once again, most people in this country believe – or rather, hope – that the outcome will be different this time.

The graphic just below  is an interesting way to show the affect that Central Bank monetary inflation has on asset valuation vs income. Asset valuation should be theoretically derived from the income levels connected to the assets. Either the asset requires a certain level of income level to purchase and maintain the asset or the asset itself generates income/cash flow.

You’ll note the pattern that developed starting with the tech bubble era. Prior to the Clinton administration the Fed subtly intervened in the financial system by been printing money in excess of marginal wealth creation (GDP growth) once Nixon closed the gold window. But, in conjunction with the Greenspan Fed, the Government’s willingness to print money as an official policy tool took on a whole new dimension during the Clinton administration.  Note:  I’m not making a political judgment per se about the Clinton presidency, because the Fed’s ability to print money to prop up the stock market was established with Reagan’s Executive Order after the 1987 stock crash. You’ll note that the household net worth to income ratio began to rise at a sharp rate starting in mid-1994, which was when the Clinton-Rubin strong dollar policy was implemented. It’s also around the time that Greenspan began regularly printing money to address the series of financial problems that arose in the 1990’s.

The current ratio of household net worth to income is 6.75 – the highest household net worth to income ratio in history. It peaked around 6.5x in 2007 and 6.1x in early 2000. You’ll note that from 1986 to 1995 the ratio averaged just around 5.1x.

A graphic that is correlated to the household net worth/income ratio is the household net worth to GDP.  The pic to the right shows household net worth (assets minus debt) vs. a plot of the U.S. nominal GDP. As you can see, when the growth in household net worth deviates considerably from the growth in nominal GDP, bad things happen to asset values. Note: household assets consist primarily of a house and retirement funds. Currently the level of household net worth – that is, the value of homes and stock portfolios – relative to GDP is at its highest point in history. This will not end with happiness.

I wanted to present the two previous graphics and my accompanying analysis, in conjunction with the theme that “it is not different this time.” The extreme degree of household asset inflation relative to incremental GDP wealth output is yet another data-point indicating the high probability that a nasty stock market accident will occur sooner or later. To compound the severity of the problem, household asset inflation has been achieved primarily through massive credit creation. The amount of debt per home sold in this country currently is at a record level.

During this past week, the bullish sentiment of investors continued to soar.  A record level of investor bullishness never ends well for the stock market. Speaking of which, there has been an interesting development in the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence metrics. The headline-reported index showed an unexpected declined from 129.5 to 122.1 vs 128 expected. This is a big percentage drop and a big drop vs Wall Street’s crystal ball. However, while the “present situation” index hit its highest level since April 2001, the “expectations” – or “hope” – metric plunged from 113.3 to 99.1. It seems the current euphoria connected to the stock and housing markets is not expected to last.

The chart above shows the spread in consumer confidence between “present conditions” and “future conditions” (present conditions minus future conditions). A rising line indicates that future outlook (“hope”) is diverging negatively from present conditions. I’ve marked with red lines the peaks in this divergence which also happen to correlate with stock market tops (1979, 1987/1989, 2000).

The above commentary in an excerpt from the last issue of IRD’s Short Seller’s Journal.  I think retail stocks are going to be hit relentlessly beginning some time this quarter. In fact, one stock I presented as a short in early December was down over 12% yesterday after it released an earnings warning.  Some of the best SSJ short ideas in 2017 were retailers.  You can learn more about this short-seller newsletter here:  Short Seller’s Journal subscription information.

“Congrats on the [retail stock short] call. What a disaster. You have to love how the chart collapsed with the news. These algos are going to destroy people when they unless selling on stocks eventually. I made a 8X on my puts. Now I need to roll them into something else.” – SSJ subscriber who actively trades

How To Go Bankrupt: Slowly Then Suddenly

In Hemingway’s, “The Sun Also Rises,” one of the characters, Bill, asks his friend, “Mike,” how he went bankrupt. Mike replied, “I had a lot of friends. False friends. Then I had creditors…” This passage from the novel comes to mind when I hear ads during the local sports radio programming from mortgage brokers urging listeners to use a cash-out refi or home equity loan to take care of credit card debt that piled up during the holidays.  Beneath the surface is the message, “c’mon in, the water is fine, go ahead and take on even more debt.”

If in fact the retail sales turn out to be as strong as projected, it’s because the average household has tapped into its savings and used an unusually large amount of credit card debt to fund holiday spending this year:

The chart on the left shows the 13-week annualized percentage change in household credit card debt. The data comes from the Fed. As you can see, the use of credit cards to fund spending has soared. Further compounding potential household financial stress, the personal savings rate in November dropped to 2.9% from 3.2% in October. It’s the lowest personal savings rate since November 2007. November 2007 is one month before an official recession was declared back then.

The 18% spike in credit card debt is perhaps more troubling than the plunge in the savings rate. It’s been theorized that consumers may have used credit cards to “pre-spend” an anticipated savings in taxes from the tax legislation. Unfortunately, the changes to the tax code will be neutral at best for the average middle class household.

Furthermore, borrowing to fund current consumption in the absence of future income growth or capital gains received from monetizing assets (stocks, homes, etc) merely shifts future consumption into the present. If retail sales come in “hot” for Q4 because of strong holiday sales fueled by credit card debt, it will be offset by a steep decline in consumer spending in 2018. This is because the rate at which consumer credit is rising at more than double the rate of growth in wages. The “cherry” on top of this scenario is that there will likely be an acceleration in the rate of credit card and auto loan delinquencies and defaults.  This latter development would a continuation of the rising trend in credit delinquencies and defaults that emerged during 2017.  Mortgage payment problems are sure to follow.

The “feel good about the economy” propaganda has been over-the-top this year.  Trump has been the primary cheerleader as he extols the virtues of a soaring stock market that he labeled “a massive bubble” when he was begging for votes on the campaign trail.  Now he points to the stock market as an indicator that the country is better off since he became president.

In truth, the middle class continues to be hollowed-out from an increasing need to assume more debt in order to maintain its lifestyle. More debt is necessitated by an income level that is not keeping up with the ravages of the inflation that the Government can’t seem to find in its CPI report.  “Middle class”  includes everyone who requires a mortgage to claim “ownership” on their home plus anyone not rich enough to pay for self-enriching legislative policy at the State and Federal levels of Government.  If you fit either of those of those or both,  you are strictly speaking “middle class.”

2018 is going to be a difficult year for most Americans.  I have no idea how much longer the stock market can continue transmitting the illusion that every one is becoming more prosperous.  I have a gut feeling that real inflation, resulting from the inexorable devaluation of the dollar since 1971, will rip through the system sometime in the next year or two and drive interest rates to a level that could bankrupt a major portion of the economy.  It really won’t take much of a bump in rates for this to occur…slowly, then suddenly.

Retail Sales: When The Government “Goal-Seeks” Economic Reports

The headline retail sales report, released today by the Census Bureau, showed a rather unexpectedly large 0.8% jump from October.  The Wall Street brain trust was expecting a 0.3% increase.   Of course, 99% of stock market investors and 100% of the financial media never looks at the details below the headline reports.   To do this, one has make an effort to scroll down to page four of the report.  There you will find this table (excerpt):

You’ll note that I highlighted this “(*)” in yellow. From the footnotes to the report, this “(*)” means this: “Advance estimates are not available for this kind of business.” For purposes of the advance estimate, the Census Bureau “imputes” the data. In other words, the CB fills in a guesstimate. According to the CB propaganda, over 30% of the data used in the monthly estimate is a guess “imputed.”  The beauty of this is that the CB has leeway to report a fictitious number for the advance estimate and then revise the original estimate when it reworks its numbers in the annual “benchmark revision” of the data,.  By then no one bothers to look or even cares the degree to which the original advance estimated was flawed.  The market only cares about the headline number when it’s reported.  I would bet a roll of American Silver Eagles that CNBC’s Steve Liesman has no clue about this aspect of the retail sales report.

My point here is that the headline report is a fairytale.  Furthermore, the headline report is based on nominal numbers.  In this case, gasoline sales – for which data for the advance estimate is available – were responsible for one-third of the 0.8% headline increase from October.  This increase is largely attributable to gasoline price inflation.  In truth, the actual “unit” volume of sales in November vs. October is largely a mystery.  Yes, online sales have been strong, but online sales represent less than 10% of total retail sales.

Interestingly, the stock market agrees with my analysis of the retail sales situation.  The XRT retail ETF was down nearly 2% today (Thursday).  The RTH retail ETF was down 0.6%.  RTH was down despite the fact that AMZN, which represents 18% of RTH’s assets, was up nearly 0.9%.

Government economic reports are notoriously manipulated and thus a highly unreliable indicator of economic activity. The reports have become little more than propaganda tools used to “goal-seek” the political agenda of both the Government and the economic agenda of the Federal Reserve.

As the publisher of a newsletter that is based on shorting stocks – the Short Seller’s Journal – I have featured several retail stock short ideas this year, some of which have been the best-performing shorts.  As a market bear, I love to see contrarian like this:

The graph shows the jump in investor dollars (largely retail investors) tossed at the retail sector (XRT) in November (top panel). The bottom panel shows the short-interest in XRT, which is at its lowest since mid-2015. Short interest dropped 22% over the last month in XRT and is down to 1% of total shares outstanding. Investors are exceedingly bullish on retail stocks and I believe this exuberance is absent fundamental justification (December 3rd, Short Seller’s Journal).

The next issue will of the Short Seller’s Journal will continue to introduce short ideas from the retail stock sector.  Click here for more information about this unique newsletter:  Short Seller’s Journal subscription information.