by Dave Kranzler, Investment Research Dynamics:
Several “black swans” are looming which could inflict a financial nuclear accident on the U.S. markets and financial system. I say “black swans” in quotes because a limited audience is aware of these issues – potentially catastrophic problems that are curiously ignored by the mainstream financial media and financial markets.
The most immediate problem is the Treasury debt ceiling. The Treasury is now projected to run out of cash by mid-summer. Of course, in the spurious manner in which the markets evaluate the next trade, July may as well be a decade away. My best guess is that the “market” assumes that, after drawn out staging of DC’s version of Kabuki Theatre, Congress will raise the debt ceiling, probably up to $22 trillion. Then the Fed will extend its highly secretive “swap” operations to foreign “ally” Central Banks (hint: Belgium and Switzerland) in order to fund the onslaught of Treasury issuance that will ensue. Problem solved…or is it?
(Note: Plan B would be another one of Trump’s bewildering Executive Orders removing the debt ceiling. Plan B is another form of “fiat” currency issuance)
The second “black swan” seen by some but invisible to most is the ongoing collapse the shopping mall business model, erroneously blamed on the combative growth of online retailing. But when I look at the actual numbers, that argument smells foul.
More than 3,500 stores are scheduled to be shuttered in the next few months. JC Penny,
Macy’s, Sears, Kmart, Crocs, BCBC, Bebe, Abercrombie & Fitch and Guess are some of the
marquee retailing names that will be closing down mall and strip mall stores. The Limited is going out of business and closing down all 250 of its stores.
The demise of the mall “brick and mortar” retail store is popularly attributed to the growth in online retail sales. To be sure, online retailing is eating into the traditional retail sales
distribution mechanism – but not as much as the spin-meisters would have have you believe. At the beginning of 2015, e-commerice sales were about 7% of total retail sales. By the end of 2016, that metric rose to 8.3%. However, looking at the overall numbers reveals that nominal retail sales have increased for both brick/mortar stores and online. In Q4 2015, total nominal retail sales were $1.186 trillion. Brick/mortar was $1.096 trillion and online was 89.7 billion, which was 7.6% of total retail sales. In Q4 2016, total sales were $1.235 trillion with brick/mortar $1.133 trillion and online $102.6 billion, which was 8.3% of total retail sales.
As you can see, there was nominal growth for both brick/mortar and online retailers. My point here is that the spin-meisters present the narrative that online retailers are eating alive the brick/mortar retailers. That’s simply not true. Part of the problem that the total retail sales “pie” is shrinking, especially when analyzing the inflation-adjusted numbers. I created a graph on from the St. Louis Fed’s “FRED” database that surprised even me
The graph above shows the year over year percentage change in nominal (not inflation-adjusted) retail sales on a monthly basis from 1993 (as far back as the retail sales data goes) thru February 2017, ex-restaurant sales, vs. outstanding consumer credit. As you can see, since 1994 the growth in nominal retail sales on a year over year basis has been in a downtrend, while the level of consumer credit outstanding as been in a steady uptrend. Since 2014, the rate of growth in debt has exceeded the rate of growth in retail sales. If we were to adjust the retail sales using just the Government-reported CPI measure of “inflation” retail sales would be outright declining.
The problem with the mall business model is debt. The mall-anchor retailers who are vacating mall space like cockroaches vacate a kitchen when the light is flipped on have been leveraged to the hilt by the financial engineers who control them who in turn have been enabled by the most permissive Federal Reserve in U.S. history. Too be sure, online retailing is cutting into the margins of Macy’s, JC Pennies, Sears, Dillards, etc. But these companies would have no problem “fighting back” if they were not over-leveraged to the eyeballs.
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