March retail sales expected to have surged as consumers spent stimulus checks

A shopper wearing a protective mask checks out at a Costco store in San Francisco, California on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Retail sales are expected to be strong in March, and some economists say that cyclical tests may have entered the economy quickly and are contributing to an even bigger gain of 10% or more.

March sales data, released at 8:30 a.m. ET on Thursday, could be the first in a series of strong reports on consumer spending as vaccinations surge and economic reopening continues. US $ 1,400 fiscal stimulus checks sent to individuals from mid-March appear to have spurred spending in an environment of pent-up demand.

“We expect the March retail sales report to be excellent, with retail sales and core retail sales growing more than 11% each month,” wrote Bank of America economists. “Stimulus, reopening and better weather were a powerful cocktail for consumer spending.”

A multi-month increase in consumer spending should fuel an economy that is expected to boom this year. The strongest growth is expected for the current quarter, which according to some economists could show a growth of the gross domestic product of more than 10%. Compared to the second quarter of last year when the economic standstill caused the economy to collapse and GDP fell by 33.3%.

Economists estimate retail sales rose 6.1% in March, or 5.3% excluding cars, according to the Dow Jones. That equates to a 3% drop in sales in February when severe winter weather in the south led to a freeze with massive power outages in Texas.

However, some economists say the spending data shows that sales could be even stronger. “It’s going to go up over 10%. Except for last May, it’s going to be a record. There are lots of vehicle sales, higher gasoline prices and everything else,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. “The restaurants are coming back. The clothing stores are busy. This is the retail reopening and that will be reflected in the numbers.”

Zandi predicts retail sales are up 10.3% from February and are likely to grow 28% year over year.

“It’s reopening. It’s stimulus money. It’s an amortization of the weather, all of which are growing together into one gangbuster number,” said Zandi. “I think we’ll see very strong numbers in the future. We’re gone and running.”

Zandi said business-to-business spend data supports his view. According to software company Cortera, recently acquired by Moody’s, all company spending increased 14.5% year over year in March while retailer spending increased 9%.

Zandi said retailers and other companies such as airlines, benefiting from an economy reopening, outperformed companies working from home for the first time since the pandemic began in March.

“Spending increased in most retail segments, with restaurants, furniture stores, clothing stores, gas stations, and sports stores predominating,” said Cortera. “Spending in grocery and beverage stores fell as consumption shifted back to restaurants and bars.”

Cortera, which has roughly $ 1.7 trillion in business spend, found that grocery and beverage store spending was 14.6% lower than last year, but grocery and beverage spending, such as bars and restaurants, rose and almost 20% more than in the previous year.

Bank of America’s credit card spending also showed an increase in late March. BofA economists said card spending increased 67% in the seven-day period ending April 3. Spending in this period was also 20% higher than in the same period in 2019.

“Animal spirits have risen remarkably, and the conference committee’s confidence level rose to 109.7 in March, the largest one-month gain since April 2003,” noted Bank of America economists. “Consumers can increase their spending while increasing their savings. We expect the savings rate to be around 20%, if not higher, in March.”

Kevin Cummins, NatWest’s chief economist in the US, said he expected sales to grow 10% in March and admits that it was on the high end of projections. He believes sales should be increased by the $ 1,400 stimulus checks sent to individuals that reached bank accounts as of March 17.

“The back end of the month should be very strong,” he said. “If you look at car sales, it was the highest level in four years. It seems like restaurants with outdoor seating are getting busier.”

The range of forecasts is unusually broad. Economists expect growth of 4% to 11.5%. That said, the market reaction could be volatile.

“Usually the range can be 1 percentage point in a prepandemic [apart], maybe 2, “said Michael Schumacher, director of interest rates at Wells Fargo.

Bank of America economists said the retail sales data could spark another debate over whether companies will re-raise spending to stimulate the economy after consumer spending rises.

“With the data confirming consumer strength, the debate is now moving to the next phase of recovery,” say Bank of America economists. “Will this turn out to be just a sugar high with a painful hangover, or will it set off a positive feedback loop leading to a sustained recovery? We expect the latter, but it will depend on a positive response from Corporate America.”

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