Taxable Retail Sales Slowed in 2022; Downturn Likely to Continue

by Dr. Patrick Jones

The pandemic blew in some strong economic tailwinds for Chelan and Douglas Counties. The reasons, however, are likely different than we think. And the tailwinds have recently subsided.

As Trends indicator 2.2.3 reveals, taxable retail sales, a fairly broad measure of economic activity, increased by $1.2 billion between 2019 and 2022. As a quick glance of the graph shows, the size of that jump was unprecedented in the history of the two counties. In percentage terms, the increase was 35%, exceeded only by the run-up (2005-2008) to the Great Recession.

Further, average growth in the two counties exceeded the healthy increase of the state over the period. Here it registered about 10%; statewide, 8%. As the graph shows, however, much of the result was due to an outsized 25% increase in 2021. For the most recent year, the gain was modest, approximately 5%.

What drove these increases between 2019 and 2022? Consider first the “Retail Trade” category. It may be surprising to that this category doesn’t make up the entirety of taxable retail sales. In fact, it has recently made up less than 50% of the all the sales tracked by this measure.

Within “Retail Trade,” big-ticket stores of automotive and recreational vehicles enjoyed some good years, but with an increase of $44 million, didn’t fall into the top five. The only entry from “Retail Trade” was “e-commerce & miscellaneous”, with an increase of $99 million.

In fact, it was construction that moved the needle the greatest, with a gain that was $308 million (!) over 2019 levels. More specifically, it was “construction of buildings” that drove up the category. This activity includes residential, commercial and industrial projects. Unfortunately, without special request of the Washington State Department of Revenue, we do not enjoy access to a breakdown among the three components.

Rounding out the top five contributing sectors or industries were, in order:  wholesale trade, and education & health services, and accommodation & food services. This broad reach of taxable retail sales reflects the state’s tax structure, and the results of that base are undoubtedly welcome by the recipients of the tax, state and local jurisdictions.

So much for history. What about now? At the moment, only three months of data have been released for 2023. In the first quarter, the year-over-year comparison actually shows a negative result:  about -5%. (This is viewable on Trends indicator 2.2.4.)

How might taxable retail sales in the two counties end the year? A look at recent monthly data for the entire state gives some clues. State taxable retail sales data are released with little delay by the Washington State Revenue & Forecast Council.(ERFC).  For the second quarter, the simple average of the increase over the three months, statewide, was 3.3%. We won’t know local, 2nd quarter results until November, but given recent trends of local underperformance vs. the state, it seems unlikely that taxable sales growth here will be much greater than zero.

And for all of 2023? Without a deeper dive into some econometrics, this is difficult to forecast. The “Retail Trade” portion will depend on income levels, something we obviously don’t yet know. Economists have shown that, over the longer term, consumption depends greatly on income. 

How might we then project 2023 ending taxable retail sales here? The ERFC does offer a total income estimate for the state as a fundamental part of its revenue forecast. For the entirety of 2023, its June forecast predicted a growth of nearly 5%. One might expect consumption, as approximated by “Retail Trade” sales to be similar, albeit a bit less to account for savings and taxes, perhaps 3.5-4%.

And for the two counties? First, consider that total income is the product of income/capita, tracked by the Trends here, and population. The growth rates of income/capita of the two counties and the state are nearly identical:  the correlation since 2000 has been nearly perfect, at 0.995. Population growth here, however, has been considerably slower (0.9%/year) than the state (1.3%/year) over the same period. If the same pattern holds, this would imply an increase in “Retail Trade” taxable retail sales at 2.5-3%.

But as we’ve seen, “Retail Trade” has recently made up less than half of the full measure. Taxes on construction activity made up a quarter of the full measure in 2022. We are unaware of commercial and industrial construction levels this year. Residential permitting for the year-to-date, however, looks weak, as Trends 2.4.4 show.  Perhaps the two counties will enjoy some large public works, which are taxable, to make any downturn of private projects.

We know even less about the year-to-date activities in the other major contributors to taxable retail sales:  wholesale trade, health services, and the hospitality industries. If the latter two follow national trends, it seems likely that some increase this year over 2022 might be expected. The wholesale trade industry encompasses such a variety of activities that it is difficult to hazard a directional guess about 2023. Curiously, the results have been driven by durable, not non-durable (aka agricultural) goods.

With the two large components of taxable retail sales – “Retail Trade” and construction – flashing yellow signs, it is likely that 2023 results will lead to a very modest increase. And If the forecast by the ERFC for the state is accurate, assuming that the local economy continues to move with the state economy, don’t expect a large change in 2024.