Retail sales slip
After a large leap in retail sales in January, sales dipped by 3.0% in February, according to the Department of Commerce retail report issued March 16. However, retail sales were still up 6.3% from the same period a year earlier. Total sales for the December 2020 through February 2021 period were up 6.0% from the same period a year ago.
Nonstore retail sales (primarily online) dropped 5.4% for the month – but were still up 25.9% from a year earlier. Auto sales were down 4.2% for the month, but still up 9.2% from a year earlier. Department store sales were down 8.4% for the month – and still down 14.5% from a year earlier. Nearly every sales category was down for the month except gasoline station sales, which rose 3.6%, reflecting a rise in pump prices and an increase in demand.
Retail sales are expected to pick up going forward, aided by the recent round of stimulus checks and the gradual resurgence of stores, restaurants and other businesses as the pandemic recedes.
Unemployment rate drops
U.S. employers added 916,000 new jobs in March, and the unemployment rate dipped from 6.2% to 6.0%, according to the Department of Labor Employment Situation Report issued April 2. Most of the job gains came in the leisure and hospitality, public and private education, and construction sectors. For the quarter, the unemployment rate dropped 0.7%, from 6.7% to 6.0%.
The average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls declined by $0.04 in March, from $30.00 per hour to $29.96.
Weekly unemployment claims declined to the lowest level since March 14, 2020 when the pandemic took hold of the economy. For the four-week period ending March 27, an average of 719,000 workers filed for unemployment. By contrast, during the first several weeks of the pandemic in 2020, workers filed more than 5 million claims per week.
Utilities and Consumer Staples enjoy March rebound
Through the first two months of 2021, the Utility and Consumer Staples sectors of the S&P 500 seemed to be the stray calves of the bull market, with both sectors sinking into negative territory. But they bounced back nicely in March, with Utilities jumping 10.51% to lead all sectors, and Consumer Staples moving up 8.19%. Also posting strong gains for the month were Industrials, up 8.91%, and Materials, up 7.58%.
For the 1st quarter, Energy led the way, as air and auto travel picked up and the economy began to rebound. Energy was up 30.85% for the quarter, followed by Financials, up 15.99%, and Industrials, up 11.41%.
At the bottom of the list was 2020’s leader, Information Technology, up only 1.69% for March, and 1.97% for the quarter.
The chart below shows the results of the 11 sectors for the past month and year-to-date: