disappointing 4Q16 sales for Target (TGT)

TGT just announced that its 4Q16 sales (the fiscal quarter ends in about two weeks, on January 31st, which is normal retail practice) will fall below its previous estimate of +1/- 1%.  The company now figures that sales will be down by -1.0% to -1.5%.

Online sales grew year-on-year by 30%+ during November/December, while sales in physical stores fell more than -3%.

In its press release, TGT also gives a breakout by major categories.

The company doesn’t say explicitly what the split is between online and physical store sales, but a little arithmetic will will get an approximate figure.  And that’s the core of the company’s sales growth problem, in my view.

The Commerce Department hasn’t yet released its calculation of the percentage of retail sales in the US that occurs online.  We can safely assume, though, that the number–which continues a steady upward march–will be around 9%.  This is the portion of overall retail that’s growing, and carrying the waning physical store business.  The TGT online figure, in contrast, is just slightly over 1%.

how do tariffs affect selling prices?

The purpose of tariffs on imported goods is to discourage their use and to encourage the development of domestic substitutes.  It sounds good in theory but may not work in practice.

A recent example of the latter is the imposition of tariffs by the Obama administration on truck tires imported from China.  The tariffs made the Chinese tires affected noncompetitive in the US.  But US tire makers regarded this market as not lucrative enough for them to enter.  So trucking companies began to import more expensive tires made in Thailand.  Economists estimated at the time that because the tariffs raised the cost of doing business for truckers it lowered their profits and overall cost the country about 3,000 jobs.  And then, of course, China retaliated by placing an import duty on poultry source in the US, hurting that industry as well.

The key points:

–tariffs raise the cost of doing business for the industries affected.  That extra cost must either be absorbed by the buyer of imported materials or passed on to the customer.  Theory says that if the end product is unique, the burden will be mostly borne by the end user;  if it’s a commodity, the importing company will have to absorb most of the extra expense.  An interesting case in this regard is toys.  Most of the toys bought in the US are made in China.  A tariff on run-of-the-mill imported toys (which probably means 90% of them) would mostly raise the price to consumers, in my view.

–tariffs may not promote domestic industry, and may do significant net damage, as the truck tire example shows.

–in addition, decades of protection against foreign competition did little to protect US carmakers from the long-term threat of imports.  On the contrary, Washington’s protective umbrella shielded shoddy manufacturing and lack of innovation that ultimately ended with two of Detroit’s Big Three declaring bankruptcy.  To be sure, government action forced foreign carmakers to establish manufacturing operations in the US.  However, the sad case of General Motors, which controlled 40% of the US cara market at one time, makes it hard to argue, I think, that government protection of domestic industry against foreign competition is the best thing to do.


Employment Situation, December 2016

The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department issued its monthly Employment Situation  this morning at 8:30 est.

According to the release, the economy gained 156,000 new jobs in December, more than enough to absorb new entrants into the workforce.  Revisions to October figures were -7,000 jobs, to November’s, +26,000, meaning the net revision to the prior two months’ data was +19,000 new positions.

While this is a so-so result, we should consider how much may be due to random statistical variations in the data and, more importantly, how much comes from the difficulty employers are apparently having in finding qualified candidates who are currently unemployed.

More evidence that the latter is becoming a more significant issue comes from the rising trend in average hourly wages the BLS is also reporting.  for the 12 months ending in December, wages have been increasing at an inflation-beating 2.9% rate.  If we, methodologically incorrectly, take the December wage gains alone, the year on year increase is 4.6%.

The bottom line:  good news, and evidence the Fed will likely take as prompting it to raise the Fed Funds rate again sooner rather than later.

is 4% real GDP growth possible in the US?

the 3% – 4% growth promise

One of Donald Trump’s campaign promises is to create 3% – 4% GDP growth in the US.  Is this possible?

The first thing to note is that this is real GDP growth, meaning after inflation has been subtracted out.  I’m not sure Mr. Trump has ever clarified this–or that he wouldn’t be nonplussed by the question–but his appointees to head the Treasury and Commerce departments have said real is what they mean.  Also, 4% nominal (that is, including inflation) growth is about what the US has been churning out in recent years.  So promising 4% nominal growth would be like P T Barnum putting up his “This way to the egress” sign.

where does growth come from?

Simple models are usually the best (as in this case, feeling embarrassed when calling them “models” is a good indicator of simplicity).  Growth can come either by having more people working or by having workers be more productive, meaning churning out more output per hour.

more workers

Having more people working is a function of demographics.

Each year, the population of the US rises by about 0.8%.  Half of that comes from children being born to people already residing in the US; half comes from immigration.  If we take increases in the population as a proxy for increases in the workforce, then demographics can generate a bit less than 1% trend growth in GDP.

This also means that if Mr. Trump carries through on his threat to deport 3% of the workforce and restrict entry of immigrants, not only will the social consequences be shameful, he will make it that much harder to achieve his GDP objective.


Given that demographics will likely either not change, or will change in a negative way, getting to the low end of the 3% – 4% range will only be possible if worker productivity rises.   Let’s make the optimistic assumptions that the Republicans’ white supremacy rhetoric doesn’t discourage any potential immigrants and that there’s no increase in deportations.  If so, productivity gains would have to be at least +2.2% per year to achieve the low end of the GDP growth goal.

If +4% growth isn’t simply “marketing” in the worst sense of that word, the Trump camp must believe that productivity can be boosted to +3.2% per year.

An aside:  My first stock market boss was a vintage 19th-century capitalist.  He believed that increasing worker productivity meant boosting the workload–and making employees work longer hours for the same pay.  (No, there was no company store where we were forced to buy meals; yes, we had to basically provide our own office supplies.)

That’s not correct, though.  Productivity improvement comes through better employee education/training and by employers investing in labor-enhancing machines (back then, it would have been computer workstations, or in my firm’s case, pencils).

productivity today

Productivity today has been stuck at around +1% per year growth for about a decade.  During the housing bubble, when the US was furiously churning out many more new dwellings than the country could afford and banks were making crazy no-documentation mortgage loans (websites were also sprouting up to show low-income renters how to buy a house and scam the system for a year of “free rent” before foreclosure), we got to maybe +2.8% for a number of years.  But the last time the US rose above 3% was in the 1950s, when industry in Europe and Japan had been destroyed by war.

my take

I hope Wilbur Ross can do what he says.

I think +4% growth is simply hype–and that Mr. Ross, if not Mr. Trump, knows the situation.

The trend in manufacturing is to replace humans with robots. That’s the most straightforward way to achieve productivity gains. Output climbs steadily; output per worker goes up faster.  However, the number of employees shrinks drastically.   For many displaced workers supporting Mr. Trump, this may be a case of being careful about what you wish for.






current Japanese inflation? ..there is none

Deflation means that prices in general are falling.  If this is the case, it’s better to put off buying new things for as long as possible, until they’re 100% absolutely needed.  That’s because anything you buy today will be cheaper tomorrow.

After a while, non-consumption becomes a habit, and an economy stagnates.

Conversely, in an inflationary environment, everything is more expensive tomorrow than it is today.  So consumers buy in advance.  In addition to things they need, they may also purchase items they have no intention of consuming.  They may think that keeping physical objects which they can later resell is a better way of preserving or enhancing purchasing power than keeping savings in the bank.

Japan has been in a deflationary economic funk for over a quarter century.   When Shinzo Abe became Prime Minister of Japan in late 2012, he decided to attack deflation as a way of boosting economic growth.  He had a plan that has become famous for its three “arrows”:  a massive depreciation of the yen, large-scale government deficit spending, and corporate/regulatory reform.  Each of the three should have been enough by itself to spark inflation.

The expense of the plan has been enormous, both in terms of the loss of international purchasing power of yen-denominated assets and in increased national debt.

The result after close to four years?   ….as the Tokyo government reported last week, no inflation at all.

How can this be?

From its outset, I’ve believed that Abenomics would be unsuccessful.  I thought the stumbling block would be corporate reform.  The earliest evidence that would indicate I would be wrong would, I thought/think, take the form of an effort to remove the legislative barriers to reform that the Liberal Democrats in the Diet had installed after the deflationary crisis had already begun.  So far, for all practical purposes there’s been nada.  So I continue to be convinced that corporate leaders will resist any changes to the status quo, aided as they are by the Diet’s removal of any levers to force reform from the outside.

Of course, any inflation-induced oomph to consumption won’t last forever.  People and institutions adjust. If nothing else, consumers run out of storage space for the extra stuff they’ve bought.  They then have to throttle back their spending   …or rent a storage unit  …or contemplate a McMansion.

What’s surprising to me, however, is that the same reluctance to spend–although perhaps not to the same degree–is evident in both the US and in Europe.  We might figure that the austerity approach of EU countries wouldn’t exactly spur consumers on.  But the lack of inflation and the paucity of mall-storming or website-crashing consumption in the US after eight years of extraordinary stimulus seem to argue that the overarching economic theories about how to induce inflation are incorrect.

Demographics as the cause?


the Employment Situation, September 2016

At 8:30 edt this morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released  monthly Employment Situation report for September.

The ES estimates the US economy created +156,000 new positions last month.  While enough to absorb the average number of people leaving school and entering the job market for the first time, the figure is below the average of +192,000 jobs created over the past three months.  Revisions to the prior two months’ estimates were also negative, subtracting a total of -7,000 from prior tallies.

For what it’s worth (not much, in my opinion), labor economists had been predicting the figure would come in at +172,000.

It’s important to remember, though, that the unemployment figures are the result of subtracting the number of job gainers from the number of job leavers.  The monthly figure for each is around 3.5 million; the difference between the two is statistically significant only +/- 100,000.

Positives in the report:  wages continue to rise at 2.6% annually; employment in the mining industry, which includes oil and gas, may be bottoming after two years of decline.


The real significance of the September ES is in its inoffensiveness.  There’s nothing in it that could even remotely be considered as a check on the Fed’s desire to raise short-term interest rates before yearend.




the September 7th Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report

The Bureau of Labor Statistics of the Labor Department released its latest JOLTS report on Wednesday.

The main results:

–nationwide job openings are now at 5.9 million, the highest figure in the 16 year history of the report.  This is substantially above the 4.5 million level of 2006-07.

–the rate of new hires has been flat for about two years at just over 5 million monthly.  While this is 5% – 10% below the rate of 2006-07, the very high number of job openings would have been consistent with an unemployment rate of 3% ten years ago.  This seems to me to be a point in favor of the idea that the main impediment to filling jobs is finding workers with needed skills.

–3 million workers are voluntarily leaving their jobs monthly.  This is a sign they’re confident of finding employment again without much difficulty.  That’s back to the pre-recession levels of 2006, and almost double the recession lows.

All of this argues that the US is at or near full employment.  On the other hand, however, there’s little sign of the upward pressure on wages that this situation would have produced in the past.


Whatever the reason for slow-rising wages, it seems to me there’s no reason in the employment figures for the Fed to maintain anything near the current emergency-room-low level of short-term interest rates.