The holiday season has started, perhaps with not as big a bang as one may like or the economy would prefer but certainly on a promising note. The fact that the U.S. economy, were we to anthropomorphize it, would jump with joy at the prospect of having several billions of dollars pumped into sectors like retail, travel and tourism and computers and electronics, can hardly be argued with.
Indeed, reports from the Conference Board, a U.S.-based organization that provides insights into consumer confidence and leading economic indicators, seemed to promise a remarkable reasonable holiday season, particularly given the scale and intensity of crises across the Eurozone and its impact on Asian markets.
As part of its monthly reports, a November note from the Conference Board placed consumer confidence in the U.S. at a four-month high of 56.0, from a low of 40.9 in July. Most startlingly, however, the Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) soared to its largest month-over-month percentage gain since April, 2009 and its largest single points gain since April, 2003.
It wasn't just the idea of spending for the holidays that was driving whatever feel-good surge the CCI was picking up. The Labor Index (the percentage of respondents who think jobs are plentiful minus the percentage who think jobs are hard to get) surged 7 points to reach minus 36.3 percent, a three-year low.
Consumer optimism is on the rise as job prospects improve, and the summer doldrums seem to be behind most Americans. In October, the unemployment rate fell to 9.0%, and disposable income adjusted for inflation finally increased after being in negative territory for three months in a row. In addition, gasoline prices are off their mid-May peak of $4.0/gallon, offering well deserved assistance to household budgets, explained Chris G. Christopher, Senior Principal Economist at HIS Global Insight.
However, he does have a few words of caution, which center on the fact that although the generally positive mood of the consumer seems to indicate a slow crawl out of recession territory, a number of American do continue to face hurdles, particularly on housing, employment and household net worth fronts. In addition, income inequality and poverty rates are on the rise, creating a loss of confidence and concerns about fairness.
Nevertheless, the Black Friday-Cyber Monday shopping sprees were well received this year and the boost in consumer moods will (and did) help holiday sales; retailers need all the help they can get!
The question, then, is how much help they actually did get.
Well, IHS Global Insight is forecasting E-commerce retail sales to be in the $60 billion ballpark in the fourth quarter and holiday sales to rise 4.2 percent above last year; although this will still be below the 5.2 percent target set last year.
This may not sound like a particularly impressive set of figures, given the overall condition of the economy. However, investors and the market in general will realize that growth, particularly after a period of recession or even reduced growth, can only come in small measures. The contraction of a number of key economic indicators over the past several years will need both time and confidence to be reversed and, as it seems, there is no better time to start that trend than the festive season.