November’s Retail Report Is Better Than It Looks

by Dan Wiener | December 19, 2011 12:07 pm

Retail sales numbers for November disappointed those who were expecting more, but while the headlines focused on the month’s relatively paltry increase — the lowest since June — sales in both September and October were revised higher. So, the November slowdown was not as bad as you might have thought if you looked only at the large print.

FedEx‘s (NYSE:FDX[1]) report of a jump in profits and traffic puts the lie to the notion that the consumer is holding back. When FedEx ships by ground and by air, it’s the consumer that is driving demand for these services. The U.S. Postal Service may be in trouble, but FedEx isn’t.

The stock, a top holding for both Vanguard Capital Opportunity (MUTF:VHCOX[2]) and Vanguard PRIMECAP (MUTF:VPMCX[3]), was up about 8% last Thursday. Both funds could use the pickup, as another holding that the managers have staked a pretty big claim to, Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM[4]), is not doing too well. Of course, the worse the stock does, the less of an impact it has on the funds’ portfolios. Still, all the PRIMECAP-run funds are, atypically, lagging in the stock market for the year.

Whether the consumer has pulled back a bit or not, the fact remains that U.S. households continue to clean up or at least reduce their debt. One measure is something called the household debt service ratio, which measures the amount of disposable income necessary to service the debt on personal balanced sheets. The number has been declining steadily since peaking in late 2007, just as the stock market was peaking. It’s now down to levels last seen in the mid-’90s.

That’s significant and noteworthy. While some of the decline may be due to the fact that some homeowners have simply walked away from their debts — and by that I mean their mortgages — the fact is that the consumer is, one way or another, getting his or her act together.

  1. FDX:
  2. VHCOX:
  3. VPMCX:
  4. RIMM:

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