Market Analysis

Wholesale Skeptics

A quick look at October inventory data may add valuable perspective to the debate over US GDP growth’s sustainability.

In its second release, Q3 US GDP was revised up to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 3.6%—the fastest growth in more than a year and among the quickest rates in the current expansion to date. However, most economists and pundits greeted the acceleration with a resounding thud. Under the hood, they claim, the data were not so hot. Reason being, the most notable contributor to growth was increasing inventories, adding 1.7 percentage points to the headline number. Some posit this means growth is hollow—after all, inventory change is open to interpretation. It could be due to slowing sales, a potential negative for profits and growth ahead. Or due to inventory build ahead of an expected pick-up in sales this holiday season. If the pessimists are right, one would expect wholesale inventory growth to sharply slow as we enter Q4. Yet Tuesday, the first inventory report of the quarter suggested no such thing: US wholesale inventories grew at their fastest clip in two years.

In October, wholesale inventories grew 1.4% m/m (3.3% y/y) vs. estimates of 0.3%. Both durables and non-durables stockpiles grew (0.4% m/m and 3.0% m/m, respectively.) So what gives?

While inventory growth undoubtedly contributed strongly to GDP in Q3, that never meant inventories were at historically high levels. As Exhibit 1 shows, the inventory-to-sales ratio isn’t overall elevated. Total goods and non-durable goods are at relatively low levels compared to history, and while durable goods inventories are somewhat higher relative to sales, they are not alarmingly high. In short, there is nothing suggesting inventory growth is unsustainable overall relative to the pace of sales. Of course, maybe inventory growth does slow in the period ahead, but it wouldn’t seem to be related to overall overstocked shelves. This is yet another factor illustrating the fact reality may be considerably better than skeptics presume.

Exhibit 1: Wholesale Inventory-to-Sales Ratio

Source: US Census Bureau, Thomson Reuters.

HT: Alex Nelson.

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