How much gasoline did you re ceive for Christmas?
My question is simple: When you and your children opened presents on Christmas morning, was gasoline among the loot? Raise your hands if you got a gallon or two.
I suspect there isn’t a single hand raised. Santa may give out coal to bad boys and girls, but he doesn’t give out petroleum-based products. (Too heavy, I suppose, for the sleigh.)
There’s a reason for this preposterous question.
Research firms attempting to track the amount of money consumers spent this Christmas don’t bother to distinguish between the iPad you bought for your brother Luke and the gas that Luke purchased on Dec. 23 to fill his truck.
Both the gas and the iPad are retail sales. They are equal in most surveys of Christmas shopping. Yet, the iPad means someone intentionally increased his hoard of gadgets. It’s what economists call a discretionary purchase, which people make mostly when they are feeling good.
This would be good news for the economy.
The gasoline? Not only is it a necessity of life, but any increase in the dollar amount of gasoline sales was caused by rising prices and not because a driver — caught up in the holiday spirit — purposely bought, say, 1.1 gallons instead of just a gallon.
Worse, the rising price of gasoline likely caused people to cut back on their holiday purchases, or go deeper into debt than they would have to buy those gifts.
The other day MasterCard Advisors, which is related to the credit-card firm, issued its macroeconomic report called SpendingPulse that attempts to track “national retail and services sales.”
The news was good.
MasterCard Advisors said retail sales soared 5.5 percent this holiday season, excluding car sales. Clueless journalists gushed that “the consumer is back.” Even one careful analyst on the economy cheered in his newsletter that this was the largest increase in five years amid an “orgy of consumerism.”
Seriously, does anyone really think consumers went crazy this Christmas? With unemployment at 9.8 percent?
It really doesn’t make sense. So I asked MasterCard Advisors whether its numbers excluded gasoline sales, which are only increasing because of an unhealthy spike in prices.
I received this clarification from a spokesman for MasterCard Advisors: “The 5.5 percent increase during the period Nov. 5 through Dec. 24 is a total retail . . . number, so it’ll include food, restaurants and gasoline. SpendingPulse measures total retail the same way that the Department of Commerce does.”
We’ll understand better how much consumers really spent this Christmas when retailers report their sales numbers. And we’ll get a hint at the impact of higher gas prices when the Census Department comes out with its monthly retail sales figures in January.
But we can already get a sense of the impact of gasoline prices from the last census report, which was when the government reported that retail and food service sales in November rose 0.8 percent from October levels.
That wasn’t a great number to begin with. The improvement from August to September had been 1.7 percent. So, the rate of growth was decelerating noticeably.
Look closer at the survey of that 0.8 percent sales gain in November and it’s even worse. When I asked, the Census Bureau said that a 4-percent jump in the price of gasoline had accounted for 0.3 percentage points.
So we don’t know how much of Christmas sales were really wasted on the inflated prices of products that would have been purchased anyway — gasoline but also food and especially clothing, which has been jumping in price along with the price of cotton.
But it’s clear that energy costs chugged higher in December, so the impact is likely to be substantial. The Energy Department says gas prices went from a nationwide average of $2.91 a gallon in mid-November to $3.05 a gallon around Christmas time.
That’s a 4.8-percent increase and indicates that a lot of this holiday’s spending wasn’t for the purpose of joyful gift- giving but rather went toward filling Luke’s pickup.
You’ve probably heard that consumer spending makes up 70 percent of the US economy. So what people did during Christmas is terribly important, not only for the economy but also for the stock market and the general mood of our country.
Washington has been wildly unsuccessful in creating jobs, as the steady-as-you-go 9.8 percent unemployment rate proves. Without job growth, the experts are re ally hoping for some mira cle pickup in consumer spending — a spontane ous combustion of the urge to own that over whelmed fear and lack of cash.
Can this miracle hap pen?
Well, in the past people tapped into the equity of their homes to keep spending even when they shouldn’t have. That’s clearly not going to happen today.
And climbing stock prices also helped increase consumer spending. Can stocks boost the economy in the new year?
You’ll have to wait until my first column of 2011 to find out what I think. [email protected]