When Janet Yellen was named chair of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System in February 2014, she became the fourth chair in my 30-year career here at the Atlanta Fed's Jacksonville Branch. While I vaguely remember Chairman Paul Volcker once visiting the branch, I was so new to the Bank and pretty naïve as to what the Fed actually did that I don't think I paid much attention back then. Soon after was Chairman Alan Greenspan, a brilliant man who spoke of economic conditions in a manner admittedly a bit hard for me to understand, especially since my Fed career began in an area not focused primarily on studying the economy. Then along came Chairman Ben Bernanke! Finally, someone who spoke in terms that even I could grasp. Couple his arrival with the creation of the Regional Economic Information Network and my foray into the world of economics (and the need for me to pay closer attention), I became an instant fan! I watched with great interest as Chairman Bernanke and the Federal Open Market Committee dusted off many lesser-known tools (as well as unveiling some brand-new tools) in the Fed's toolbox to help stimulate the economy during and after the Great Recession.
So, imagine my thrill at finding out that Chairman Bernanke was going to be a keynote speaker at this year's National Retail Federation's (NRF) annual conference that I had the great fortune to attend! I was like, whoop whoop! (I know, I'm just a big fan at heart!)
The morning of his appearance, I got up at zero-dark-thirty and was the first in line to enter the massive convention hall where he was scheduled to speak. I made a bee-line to the front and scoped out the best seat in the house. And I waited with anxious anticipation. I was like a teenage girl at her first rock concert when he took the stage. I listened intently as he and the president of Saks Fifth Avenue, who is serving as this year's NRF chairman, discussed the fallout from the global economic crisis and current prospects for the U.S. economy and the retail industry. It was amazing to listen to Bernanke speak in a much more casual manner (since now his comments do not necessarily move markets) about the events of the crisis and the actions taken by the Fed. (Remember, he is a scholar of the Great Depression of the 20th century and understood how the Fed could work to avoid the mistakes of the past.)
In addition to Chairman Bernanke sharing insights about the crisis with the audience, he commented on the transparency of the Federal Reserve System by saying, "In the middle of a crisis explaining where, why, and how we do what we do is as important as taking actions." When asked about the current state of the economy, Bernanke indicated that the U.S. economy is enjoying a genuine recovery. However, he has some concern regarding the European Union, noting that the situation should be watched carefully.
He was then asked what he missed most about being Fed chairman. He said that when he was chairman, he was driven everywhere by his security detail, so little things like traffic and finding parking spaces were never a concern. What he misses most, he said, "is not having to find my own parking spaces." He paused briefly and added, "That's all I miss."
How was I lucky enough to see Chairman Bernanke in person? As I mentioned, this was the NRF's annual conference, and one of my responsibilities as an analyst is to follow the retail sector and consumer behavior. So aside from my thrilling moment as a fan, what other insights did I glean at the conference? Well, when I attended the same conference two years ago, the underlying tone among participants was, "How do we get the consumer back to spending?" This year, the participants were upbeat and the focus seemed to be "We've got the consumer back, but how do we keep them back?" One answer was to create an engaging and exciting shopping experience.
Retailers must have been successful because revolving credit is up and consumer confidence is high. Let's take a look at our consumers and their behavior during the 2014 holiday shopping season.
Consumer credit outstanding rose $14.8 billion in December from $13.5 billion in November (see the chart). Nonrevolving credit, which is made up mostly of auto and student loans, rose $9.0 billion. However, the more noteworthy movement is that revolving credit rose a significant $5.8 billion in December from November's decline of $0.9 billion. In my opinion, this increase indicated the consumer was willing to take on debt previously avoided. Revolving credit, composed primarily of credit card loans, showed its strongest growth in eight months (the chart compares month-over-month data).
The Conference Board's survey on current conditions rose significantly to a seven-year high of 112.6 points in January from December's reading of 99.9. The University of Michigan's index rose to 109.3 points in January from 104.8 in December. The Conference Board's current conditions survey is based on the survey participants' view of current economic conditions as it relates to businesses and jobs, while the University of Michigan's survey is based on the individuals' sentiment as it relates to their personal households (see the chart).
The Conference Board's measure of expectations rose moderately to 96.4 points in January from 88.5 in December. The University of Michigan's index rose to 91.0 points in January from December's reading of 86.4. The expectations surveys by both entities are based on the same views of the survey participants as the current conditions surveys. However, the forward-looking expectations time frame differs. The Conference Board is looking six months out, and the University of Michigan is looking one to five years out (see the chart).
It appears, for now, that the consumer is increasingly upbeat, which is vital to the strength of the economy. Several District retail contacts recently reported double-digit growth and record-setting volume in 2014. Casual dining establishments saw an uptick in volume as consumers seem to be trading up from fast-food options.
Although total retail sales fell 0.8 percent in January from 0.9 percent in December, core retail sales—those excluding auto, gas, and building materials—rose 0.2 percent in January from December's decline to 0.1 percent, month over month. Retail sales maintained the same pace of growth for December and January rising 3.3 percent year over year (see the chart).
Overall, the consumption sector looks reasonably vibrant. And as one of my industry contacts said, "Every day gets better." It appears that Chairman Bernanke isn't the only one enjoying his current situation.