A forum for information and analysis on the Arkansas economy

Metro Area Employment & Unemployment – April 2021

In a month where the statewide unemployment rate and payroll employment totals were essentially unchanged, labor market indicators for Arkansas’ metropolitan areas were mixed in April.

From March to April, unemployment rates declined slightly in Northwest Arkansas, Fort Smith, Jonesboro and Little Rock; but increased in Memphis, Pine Bluff and Texarkana (Hot Springs was unchanged).  One year ago, unemployment rates peaked during the harshest period of pandemic-related economic business closures.  Since that time, rates have dropped significantly. The largest decline from a year ago was in Hot Springs, where the unemployment rate peaked at over 15% but had fallen to 5.9 by April 2021. The unemployment rate in Pine Bluff has only fallen 3.7 percentage points since April 2020, but at its peak was only 4.6 percentage points above pre-pandemic levels. All eight of the metro areas that include parts of Arkansas have higher unemployment rates than in February 2020, with net increases ranging from 0.9 percentage points in Northwest Arkansas and Pine Bluff to 2.8 percentage points in Memphis.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Smoothed Seasonally Adjusted Metropolitan Area Estimates

Payroll Employment
Nonfarm payroll employment increased in Fayetteville, Hot Springs, and Little Rock but was down across the state’s other metro areas.  Net changes from a year ago reflect progress toward recovering lost employment, with the largest increase—over 17% in Hot Springs—reflects the magnitude of last year’s downturn.  Employment has risen 10% over the past year in Fayetteville and Texarkana, leaving Fayetteville down less than one percent from pre-pandemic levels.  Texarkana, which suffered a larger initial decline in employment last April, remains 4.0% below pre-pandemic levels.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Statistics (CES)

 

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Arkansas Retail Sales – February 2021

When the national retail sales statistics for February were released, a downturn in consumer spending was attributed to a wave of heavy snow and bitterly cold weather across the country.  Arkansas being near the heart of that storm, it is not surprising that Arkansas Retail Sales showed a decline for the month.  Total Retail and Food Services Sales declined 4.9% from January (seasonally adjusted) compared with a 3.3% decline nationwide (revised data).

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, Arkansas Economic Development Institute

The monthly slowdown in sales was evident in nearly every retail industry group, both nationally and here in Arkansas, with particularly large declines at Clothing Stores and Health and Personal Care Stores.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, Arkansas Economic Development Institute

The only exception was for sales at Motor Vehicles and Parts Dealers. As we speculated in the report for January, the inclement weather in February might have resulted in postponement of vehicle registrations, and if so we might expect for some of that overhang to show up in the data as sales in February.  That appears to have been the case.  The February data show sales at Motor Vehicle and Parts Dealers up 27.2% from the previous month, and up 22.6% compared to February of 2020.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, Arkansas Economic Development Institute

Compared to February 2020, several retail industry groups are recording sharp increases, including Building Materials, etc., Food & Beverage Stores, Sporting Goods, etc.,  and Nonstore retailers (including online shopping).  Sales within some industry groups remain suppressed by the COVID-19 pandemic, including Clothing Stores, Electronics and Appliance Stores, as well as Food Services.

# # #

Arkansas Retail Sales are constructed from county-level sales tax data obtained from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. Documentation of our methodology is available here: Arkansas Retail Sales—A New Data Set from AEDI.

Data for Arkansas Retail and Food Service Sales for July 2017 through January 2021 are available in an Excel Spreadsheet:  Arkansas-Retail-Sales-Feb-2021.

The data set includes statewide aggregates and components, both seasonally adjusted and not-seasonally adjusted.  County-level data for Total Retail and Food Service Sales ex Gasoline, and ex Gas and Auto, are available on a not-seasonally adjusted basis.

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Arkansas Employment and Unemployment – April 2021

Labor markets in Arkansas generally continued to improve in April, but at a much slower pace than in the early months of the recovery.  First, the state’s unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.4%, still significantly lower than the national unemployment rate of 6.1%.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The underlying data from the household report showed an increase in the number of employed (+2,779) and a decline in the number of unemployed (-795), so technically the Arkansas unemployment rate declined in April, just not enough to register a change of even one-tenth of a percent (and not nearly enough to be statistically significant).  The increase in employment was also associated with a net increase in labor force participation.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS)

Payroll Employment
Nonfarm payroll employment was little changed in April. The not-seasonally adjusted data showed an increase of 6,100 jobs, but much of that increase was in industries that typically add jobs during the spring, including Leisure & Hospitality, as well as Administrative and Support Services.  After seasonal adjustment, Arkansas payroll employment showed a slight decline – down 1,300 jobs.  Today’s report also included an upward revision of 1,200 to the preliminary employment total reported for March, so the net new information indicates little change.  Arkansas employment remains 2.4% lower than in February 2020.  By comparison, U.S. employment is still down 5.4% from the previous peak.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Statistics (CES)

As shown in the table below, employment declines showed up in the Trade, Transportation and Utilities sectors, as well as in Financial Services.  Nondurable manufacturing experienced a decline in April that was enough to make the year-over-year change slightly negative.  With the exception of Financial Services, the service-providing sectors all added jobs in April.  Within the broad super-sectors, noteworthy increases were reported in Administrative & Support Services (a component of Professional & Business Services), as well as the Accommodation & Food Service component of Leisure & Hospitality.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Statistics (CES)

It was one year ago the employment hit bottom, so the year-over-year figures this month directly measure the recovery from the downturn of March-April 2020.  Over the past 12 months, the state’s payrolls have increased by 96,400 with significant gains in the sectors that were hardest-hit during the downturn.  Several sectors now show higher employment than before the pandemic-related downturn, including Durables Manufacturing, Retail Trade, Financial Services and Other Services.

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Seasonally adjusted data for Arkansas nonfarm payroll employment, reported in a format consistent with the monthly news release from the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services, can be found here: Table-Seasonally Adjusted NFPE. 

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Metro Area Employment & Unemployment – March 2021

New statistics for metro area employment and unemployment were released this morning.  The data show that recovery from the pandemic-related unemployment spike of April 2020 continues across the state.

Revisions to the household survey data, from which unemployment rates are calculated, are taking longer than usual.  Data for 1990 through 2009 were issued on March 19 and data for 2010 through 2020 were released on April 16.  Seasonal-adjustment models are still going through re-fitting and are not yet available.  The revised data that came out two weeks ago showed that unemployment rate spikes in April 2020 were not quite as severe as estimated at the time.  As shown in the figure below, unemployment rate peaks were revised downward in all metro areas except Memphis (+0.2) and Texarkana (unch.).  The ranking of unemployment rates among Arkansas metro areas was unchanged by the revision, with Hot Springs and Texarkana showing the highest unemployment rates.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS)

The data released this morning showed that unemployment rates continue to decline.  Unemployment in Northwest Arkansas has fallen below 4% and Jonesboro reached that benchmark in March.  The most significant recovery is Hot Springs, down 8.9 percentage points from April 2020 through March 2021.  As of March, Pine Bluff and Texarkana had the highest unemployment rates among Arkansas metro areas.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS)

Payroll Employment
Nonfarm payroll employment continued to increase in six of the eight metro areas that cover parts of Arkansas.  Employment in Northwest Arkansas was unchanged for the month and Hot Springs saw a decline of 1.0%.  With the March downturn, Hot Springs remains 4.0% below the employment level of March 2020.  Jonesboro, Little Rock, Memphis and Texarkana have also seen year-over-year declines larger than the statewide average (-2.0%) but none of the Arkansas metro areas have suffered job losses as large as the national average (-4.5%).

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Statistics (CES)

The figure below provides more detail on the relative magnitudes of employment losses last spring, as well as the state of recovery as of March 2021 (with the data indexed to a common value of 100 for February 2020).  Pine Bluff experienced the smallest percentage decline in employment from February 2020 through April 2020, and remains the metro area with the smallest net decline since the onset of the pandemic.  Hot Springs suffered the state’s largest decline in April 2020, and was showing signs of a significant rebound until the first part of 2021. The Fayetteville-Springdale-Rogers metro area saw 2020 job losses commensurate with those in Memphis and Little Rock, but has rebounded to be nearly tied with Pine Bluff for the smallest net decline since February 2020.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Statistics (CES)

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Arkansas Retail Sales – January 2021

Despite a sharp drop-off in automobile purchases, Arkansas Retail Sales increased sharply in January (seasonally adjusted).  Total Retail and Food Service Sales increased 6.1% from December.  Compared to a year earlier, sales were up 11.2%.  National Retail Sales statistics from the Census Bureau showed a January increase of 7.7% and a year-over-year increase of 9.6%.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, Arkansas Economic Development Institute

As shown in the table below, January retail sales featured a sharp drop-off in measured automobile sales, down 10.2% for the month and down 9.6% from a year earlier.  The sharp decline might be anomalous;  auto sales are recorded when the auto is registered and taxes paid by the buyer, and some registrations in February might have been delayed by harsh winter storms.  Sales at nonstore retailers, which include internet sales, showed a slight decline for the month but were up 46% compared to a year ago.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Arkansas Economic Development Institute

Arkansas retail sales generally continue to show a more robust recovery from the pandemic-related economic downturn than have sales nationwide.  The U.S. Retail Sales data show ongoing year-over-year declines in Electronics and Appliance Stores, Clothing and Accessories Stores, and Food Service & Drinking Places.  In each of these categories, Arkansas sales have surpassed the levels of a year earlier.  Perhaps most remarkable, restaurant sales have recovered to pre-pandemic levels in Arkansas but are still down 14.7% nationwide.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Arkansas Economic Development Institute

Sales at gasoline stations remain lower than a year ago, both here in Arkansas and nationwide. That decline reflects, at least in part, significantly lower gasoline prices.  Although rising more recently, the average price for gasoline in Arkansas was $2.15 in January 2021, down from $2.25 in January 2020.

County Data
With the exception of gasoline sales, the Arkansas Retail Sales data are derived from county-level reports on sales tax collections (see methodology notes) so we can break down the total sales figures by county (not-seasonally adjusted).  As shown in the interactive map below, year-over-year growth rates for Total Retail Sales ex Gasoline growth was positive in 70 of Arkansas’ 75 counties.  Growth rates exceeded 20% in 13 counties, with a high of 33.5% in Crittenden County.

 As noted above, a sharp drop in automobile sales was a factor reducing growth rates around the state.  When we remove that component, Retail Sales ex Gas & Auto showed positive growth to be even more prevalent.  Only one county (Lee County) showed a year-over-year decline (-2.1%).  47 counties showed growth rates of over 20% and 15 counties exceeded 30%.  The fastest growing county was Crittenden county, up 39.5% from the previous year.

# # #

Arkansas Retail Sales are constructed from county-level sales tax data obtained from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. Documentation of our methodology is available here: Arkansas Retail Sales—A New Data Set from AEDI.

Data for Arkansas Retail and Food Service Sales for July 2017 through January 2021 are available in an Excel Spreadsheet:  Arkansas-Retail-Sales-Jan-2021.

The data set includes statewide aggregates and components, both seasonally adjusted and not-seasonally adjusted.  County-level data for Total Retail and Food Service Sales ex Gasoline, and ex Gas and Auto, are available on a not-seasonally adjusted basis.

 

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Arkansas Employment and Unemployment – March 2021

The latest data on state employment and unemployment shows that Arkansas economy is continuing to recover from the downturn of 2020.  Employment statistics showed gains in March and the number unemployed continued to decline.

The unemployment rate dropped another tenth of a percentage point to 4.4%, remaining significantly lower than the national unemployment rate of 6.0%.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The drop in the unemployment rate reflected the ongoing decline in the number of unemployed, which dropped by 1,400 in March.  The number of employed in the household data also declined in March, as did the labor force.  March represented the third consecutive decline in the labor force, the effect of which has been to reverse some of the unexpectedly large increase reported for December.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS)

Payroll Employment
Nonfarm payroll employment increased by 3,400 in March (seasonally adjusted)—about 0.3%.  Moreover, the data for February, which originally showed a decline of 3,400 jobs, were revised to show a downturn of only 700 jobs.  The March data showed monthly increases in the goods-producing sectors of Construction and Manufacturing, as well as in several service-providing sectors: Employment in Education and Health Services increased by 1,700, and the categories of Leisure &Hospitality Services and Other Services each saw gains of 600 jobs.  Employment in financial services also registered a health increase of 700 jobs.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Statistics (CES)

One year ago, we saw the first employment declines associated with COVID-19, with total nonfarm payrolls falling by 4,600 jobs (a modest decline compared to the 122,600 drop that came the following month).  Compared to that nearly-pre-COVID level of employment, several sectors have now seen net increases in employment.  Construction, Manufacturing, Retail Trade and Financial Services all have higher employment levels than in March 2020.  Other service sectors continue to lag, including Leisure & Hospitality Services and Education & Health Services (entirely attributable to Health Care & Social Assistance categories). Overall, the seasonally-adjusted statistics show employment down 26,100 from a year ago—approximately 2.0%.

The figure below compares the downturn and recovery for Arkansas with the U.S. total.  As of March 2021, employment in Arkansas was 2.3% below the employment peak of February 2020, while for the U.S., the net change in employment was -5.5%.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Statistics (CES)

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Seasonally adjusted data for Arkansas nonfarm payroll employment, reported in a format consistent with the monthly news release from the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services, can be found here: Table-Seasonally Adjusted NFPE. 

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Arkansas Home Sales

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic we haven’t been tracking home sales on a regular basis, but housing markets have been following a roller-coaster ride along with every other sector of the economy.  Housing Market Reports from the Arkansas Realtors® Association were intermittent for a time, but are now up-to-date through January 2021.  The data show that the number of homes sold in Arkansas were at an all-time high in 2020.  The cumulative sales figure for December 2020 was 42,980 new and existing homes sold, up 15.2% from the previous year.

Source: Arkansas Realtors® Association

The seasonal pattern of home sales was distorted by pandemic-related disruptions, with slow sales in April and May.  Compared to the same period a year earlier, sales were down 11.6% during those two months.  Those declines were more than offset by strong sales later in the year:  Sales hit a record-high 4,577 in July, and the average year-over-year growth rate averaged 24.3% over the second half of the year.  January is always the slowest month of the year for home-sale closings, but markets had plenty of momentum going into 2021:  Sales in January 2021 were up 9.4% from January 2020.

Source: Arkansas Realtors® Association; Seasonally adjusted by the Arkansas Economic Development Institute

Looking at quarterly averages, the contrast between the sales slow-down in the second quarter and the resurgence over the second half of the year is even more evident.

Source: Arkansas Realtors® Association; Seasonally adjusted by the Arkansas Economic Development Institute

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Arkansas Consumer Spending in 2020

One of the most significant and unexpected features of the Arkansas economy during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the robust behavior of consumer spending.  Despite sharp increases in unemployment and losses in earnings, Arkansas consumers maintained and even exceeded previous trends in overall spending—albeit with notable effects on the composition of purchases.  This sustained spending profile contrasts with the behavior of national retail sales, which experienced historic declines in the spring of 2020.

In order to investigate the issue of consumer spending during the pandemic in more detail, researchers at the Arkansas Economic Development Institute have been refining a methodology for extracting retail sales data from reports on county sales tax receipts.  The raw data, available monthly for all of Arkansas counties broken down by four-digit industry sectors (NAICS codes), is provided by the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration: Local Tax Distribution by NAICS.

From the raw data, we extract measures of total retail sales corresponding to the components of the U.S. Retail Trade and Food Services accounts published by the Census Bureau.  More details about the methodology are available here: Arkansas Retail Sales—A New Data Set from AEDI. The result is a data set of time series for statewide retail sectors, as well as for county-level totals.  For comparison with seasonally-adjusted national data, we implement a rudimentary seasonal-adjustment technique to adjust the statewide data.

Figure 1 displays an overall comparison of consumer spending trends during the pandemic.  Data for the U.S. and Arkansas are presented as indexes, normalized so that the second half of 2019 provides a baseline value of 100.

Figure 1:

The U.S. Retail Sales data show a sharp decline in early 2020, with sales dropping 21.2% from pre-pandemic levels by April.  The Arkansas data show declines in March and April, but the downturn was in the range of only 3 to 4 percent.  By May and June, spending was recovering briskly both nationwide and here in Arkansas, but spending in Arkansas rose further above pre-pandemic levels than indicated by the U.S. data:  Over the second half of the year, Arkansas retail sales were 8.7% higher than in 2019 while nationwide spending was up only 4.0%.

Spending by Industry Group
Table 1 compares growth rates for components of retail sales for the U.S. and Arkansas.  Measuring from December 2019, U.S. Retail and Food Services sales declined 21.5% through April, while the downturn in Arkansas was only 3.1%.  In every industry group except for Gasoline Stations and Health & Personal Care Stores, Arkansas retail sales outperformed the nation.  By the end of the year, U.S. spending totals were higher than the previous year in 9 of 13 subsectors with ongoing weakness in Electronics and Appliance Stores, Gasoline Stations, Clothing Stores and Food Services.  In Arkansas end-of-year sales were down from 2019 in only three sectors, Health and Personal Care Stores, Gasoline Stations and Food Services.

Table 1:

Figure 2 shows the relative sizes of the industry groups for the U.S. and Arkansas in 2019, before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Among the larger subsectors, Arkansas spending tends to be more concentrated in industry groups 447 and 452, Gasoline Stations and General Merchandise Stores.  On the other hand, Arkansans spend relatively less on Food and Beverage Stores, Clothing and Clothing Accessories Stores, and Nonstore Retailers (which includes internet shopping).

Figure 2:

Figure 3a through 3m, below, compare seasonally-adjusted time series for the U.S. and Arkansas, sector by sector.

Figure 3a shows an important component of consumer spending during the pandemic:  Motor Vehicles and Parts Dealers.  As described in Arkansas Retail Sales—A New Data Set from AEDI, construction of this component is complicated by the per-vehicle nature of sales taxes at the county level in Arkansas.  Consequently, for NAICS sector 441, the Arkansas measure combines two components:  Taxable sales at motor vehicle and parts dealers excluding automobiles, plus an estimate of the total value of vehicle sales based on an index of the number of vehicles sold.

Figure 3a shows one of the sharpest divergences between U.S. and Arkansas data.  While motor vehicle related sales plunged nationwide in March and April, the downturn in Arkansas lasted only through March.  By April, sales in Arkansas exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

Figure 3a:

Figure 3b displays sales at Furniture and Home Furnishings Stores.  This was one of the temporarily hardest-hit sectors nationwide, with sales falling more than 50% in April, then recovering to above per-pandemic levels by July.  In Arkansas, the sales decline in April was less than 20%, and sales over the second half of the year have averaged 13.3% above levels of the previous year.

Figure 3b:

Similarly, sales at Electronics and Appliance stores suffered sharper springtime losses nationwide than in Arkansas, and the nationwide statistics continue to show more weakness in the second half of the year.

Figure 3c:

Building Materials, Garden Equipment and Supplies, is one of the subsectors that thrived during the pandemic (Figure 3d).  Evidently, with additional time on their hands at home, people devoted more time and resources to home-improvement projects.  Nationwide, spending increased by more than 15% relative to the previous year, while in Arkansas the sustained increase averaged over 25%, and a peaked at a year-over year increase of 45% in June.

Figure 3d:

Food and Beverage Stores also saw sales increase during the pandemic.  As shown in Figure 3e, consumer stockpiling in March resulted in a surge of over 25% nationwide and 40% in Arkansas.  Over the second half of the year, U.S. grocery store sales have remained 10% above pre-pandemic levels, with Arkansas sales trending even higher.

Figure 3e:

Health and Personal Care Stores (NAICS 446) is one of the few subsectors that experienced a sharper initial downturn in Arkansas than nationwide (although the difference was not significant).  As shown in Figure 3f, Arkansas sales surged in the summer months and U.S. sales increased to a level about 5% higher than pre-pandemic levels.

Figure 3f:

Calculation of sales at gasoline stations is complicated by the fact that gasoline sales are not subject to sales tax.  The data from the Local Tax Distribution by NAICS accounts record all non-gasoline sales at gasoline stations.  To calculate a statewide measure that includes gasoline, we add non-gasoline sales to the total statewide gasoline sales measure that is constructed as part of the ATSIG data; namely, data on total gallons of motor fuel sales from DF&A is combined with average price per gallon from the Oil Price Information Service to yield an aggregate measure of gasoline sales.  The results of these calculations, displayed in Figure 3g, show that gasoline station sales in Arkansas have been running even with the nationwide trends.  Although the downturn in gasoline expenditures in 2020 is significant, it reflects lower gasoline prices as much as it does fewer gallons purchased.  To some extent, the reductions in gasoline sales frees-up purchasing power for consumers to spend in other sectors.

Figure 3g:

Nationwide, the subsector that experienced the sharpest declines in the spring of 2020 was Clothing and Clothing Accessories.  As shown in Figure 3h, sales in that subsector dropped by more than 80% during the springtime.  In Arkansas, the drop was also substantial – over 50%.  And while nationwide sales still lag behind the previous year, sales in Arkansas have returned to previous levels.

Figure 3h:

A collection of specialty stores, NAICS 451 provides another example of a subsector that has benefited from the pandemic, at least over the second half of 2020. Consisting of Sporting Goods, Hobbies, Musical Instrument and Book Stores, sales in subsector 451 declined by 45% nationwide in April but were down less than 10% in Arkansas.  As shown in Figure 3i, U.S. sales in this subsector were up significantly from the previous year (between 10% and 20%) during the second half of 2020, but not by as much as in Arkansas.

Figure 3i:

General Merchandise stores, which include department stores along with “Other” general merchandise stores, appears to have benefited from the initial phase of consumer stockpiling in March, but quickly dropped off.  Shown in Figure 3j, general merchandise stores nationwide have experienced somewhat stronger sales over the second half of the year, and have generally been even stronger in Arkansas (except for one outlier month).

Figure 3j:

Industry Group 453, Miscellaneous Store Retailers, is another category that combines several smaller specialty stores, including florists, office supply stores and used merchandise stores (among others).  As shown in Figure 3k, sales in subsector 453 for the entire U.S. followed a pattern of plunging sharply in the spring but recovering back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year.  In Arkansas, on the other hand, sales were up by approximately 25% by the end of the year, after showing no notable weakness at all during the early months of the year.

Figure 3k:

Industry group 454, Nonstore Retailers, displays an interesting pattern.  As shown in Figure 3l, U.S. sales at nonstore retailers showed no downturn at the onset of the pandemic, and surged 20% to 30% over the course of the year.   In Arkansas the 2020 increase was in the range of 40 to 50%. The explanation for this remarkable performance is in the composition of subsector 454:  It includes “Electronic Shopping and Mail Order Houses.”

Consumer sales via internet merchants soared during 2020.  The data suggest that the share of online shopping before the pandemic was smaller than the U.S. average [see Table 1], but it experienced much sharper increases as Arkansas shoppers caught up.

Figure 3l:

In Figure 3l, the sharp increase in sales over the second half of 2019 requires some explanation.  In July 2019, Act 822 took effect, mandating that out-of-state retailers collect and remit sales and use taxes on internet sales. The associated surge in tax collections doesn’t represent an increase in retail sales; rather, it reflects a broadening of the tax base.  The effect was not limited to NAICS sector 454, but it is the most evident there.

The impact of Act 822 creates a discontinuity in the Arkansas Retail Sales series that complicates interpretation of the data, but is largely unavoidable.  As part of the seasonal adjustment process, we estimated the magnitude of a July 2019 trend shift for all subsectors.  In many cases there was no significant effect, but several sectors did show statistically significant increases.  In the case of sector 454, the magnitude of this “internet sales tax effect” was a whopping 64%.  Calculated for Total Arkansas Retail and Food Service Sales, the effect is estimated to be 4.8%.  Although it is reasonable to expect that actual retail sales did not change after July 2019, counties and municipalities experienced an increase in sales tax revenues that amounted to nearly 5% of retail-related tax collections.  Using the same methodology, we estimate that total county and municipal tax collections were boosted by 4.2%.  These estimates are preliminary, and will be explored in more detail in further research.

The final subsector to consider is Food Services and Drinking Places.  As shown in Figure 3m, sales at restaurants and bars declined sharply in the spring of 2020.  U.S. sales were down over 50%, while the decline in Arkansas sales was less than half as large at 24%.  Even by the end of the year, nationwide restaurant and bar sales remained significantly lower than a year earlier.  In Arkansas it was one of the few sectors that had not recovered to pre-pandemic levels by the end of the year, but the year-over-year comparison was only -2.6%.

Figure 3m:

County Data
The data are necessarily less precise at the county level.  Relatively small idiosyncratic factors (as well as the suppression of some data for reasons of confidentiality) introduce sources of random fluctuations in the individual components of county-level retail sales.  Consequently, we construct only broad, not-seasonally adjusted measures of retail sales for Arkansas counties.

Two subsectors present specific issues:  First, gasoline sales are constructed using statewide data on fuel taxes, so we have no individual county measures for that component.  Second, although there is a full set of county data for automobiles, the tax information provides us with only an index of the number of vehicles sold, not their value.  Moreover, the taxes on motor vehicles are paid to the county of residence, rather than the county of purchase, introducing an additional complication in interpreting the data.

Accordingly, we present two measures of Retail Sales for Arkansas counties:  The first excludes Gasoline Stations and the second excludes Gasoline Stations and Motor Vehicles and Parts Dealers.  As shown in Figures 4a and 4b, the statewide measures for these aggregates show the same basic patterns as Total Retail and Food Services Sales (See Figure 1):  Namely, the downturn in Spring 2020 is far smaller for Arkansas than for the U.S., and the surge in sales during the second half of 2020 is larger for Arkansas than for the U.S.

Gasoline sales dropped sharply in April and have remained persistently low, so their exclusion results in aggregates with smaller downturn in early 2020 and stronger growth in the second half of the year.  Auto sales in Arkansas declined in March 2020 but began accelerating in April.  Hence, the exclusion of autos essentially eliminates the March downturn that is evident in Figure 1 for Total Retail Sales.

For both measures, there is little or no overall downturn in April, corresponding to the national retail sales trough, and very little indication of any downturn in either March or April.

Figure 4a:

Figure 4b:

Given the statewide performance of these two measures, it is not surprising that very few counties in Arkansas experienced any downturn in early 2020 at all.  In particular, if we examine sales in April 2020 (the national trough) relative to prior values, nearly every county experienced significant growth

Figure 5 shows a map that reveals differences across counties in the growth of Retail Sales less Gasoline.  The map depicts growth rates calculated as the change from the average for the second half of 2019 through April 2020  (2019:H2 is used as the base for calculating growth rates so as to avoid contamination by the change in internet sales tax regime in July 2019).

In Figure 5, only 8 counties showed negative growth over the period, with 67 counties showing positive growth—with five counties exceeding 20% growth over the period.  The collection of counties that experienced negative sales growth is clearly not entirely random, with the subset including Pulaski, Sebastian, Washington, Benton and Craighead – all central counties of Metropolitan Areas.

Figure 5:
[https://www.datawrapper.de/_/kTAX2/]

Figure 6 shows growth rates of Retail Sales less Gas and Autos.  A similar pattern is clear, but after exclusion of the surge in auto sales in April, several more counties show negative growth in sales (with 15 counties showing declines).  The counties showing negative growth are not exclusively metropolitan counties, but there is a clear tendency for the declining counties to contain urban areas.  Without the strong auto sales included, growth rates are generally lower, with only 3 counties showing growth rates of over 20%.

Figure 6:

[https://www.datawrapper.de/_/COQdV/]

Over the second half of 2020, strength in consumer spending prevailed across the state.  As shown in Figure 7, county growth rates of Retail and Food Service sales less Gas and Auto ranged from 4.5% in Franklin County to 38.9% in Woodruff County.

Figure 7:

[https://www.datawrapper.de/_/9SM1S/]

Conclusion
The COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts to contain it, have disrupted economic activity in many sectors of the economy.  Most directly affected has been retail spending, where business closures, capacity reductions and social distancing have had unequivocal effects on consumer behavior and spending patterns.  Nevertheless, consumer spending in Arkansas remained relatively robust.

During the spring of 2020, Arkansas experienced fewer restrictions on commerce than many other states.  We were one of the few states that did not go through a period of mandatory stay-at-home or shelter-in-place orders.  Consequently, while consumers and businesses had to adapt to changes on protocols, commerce continued.  The contribution of federal support and stimulus payments has also helped support the consumer sector.  Arkansas is a relatively low wage and low cost-of-living state, so direct payments and unemployment insurance extensions have given Arkansans’ an extra boost in purchasing power.

There is some evidence that consumer spending was slowing toward the end of 2020, but two federal Covid-relief bills were signed into law on December 27, 2020 and March 11, 2021.  Additional stimulus payments and unemployment insurance expansions are expected to provide additional purchasing power to fuel continued strength in consumer spending.  With inoculations proceeding and social distancing rules being relaxed, consumers should also find more opportunities for spending.  Consequently, the outlook is for retail sales to continue to drive economic activity in coming months. We will continue to track Arkansas Retail Sales to monitor and document these trends.

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Documentation of Methodology is available here: Arkansas Retail Sales—A New Data Set from AEDI.

Data for Arkansas Retail and Food Service Sales for July 2017 through December 2020 are available in an Excel Spreadsheet:  Arkansas-Retail-Sales-Dec-2020.

The data set includes statewide aggregates and components, both seasonally adjusted and not-seasonally adjusted.  County-level data for Total Retail and Food Service Sales less Gasoline are available on a not-seasonally adjusted basis.

A PDF File of this Report is available HERE.

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Arkansas Retail Sales — A New Data Set from AEDI

Tracking the economies of states and regions is often limited by the availability of data.  In the recent context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated economic dislocations, economists have found the development of new sources of information to be increasingly helpful in tracking the rapidly evolving economic situation.

One glaring omission in the data-measurement tools of regional economists is the lack of data on consumer spending.  The Census Bureau calculates Retail Sales on a national level, but not for smaller geographic subdivisions.[1] The Bureau of Economic Analysis publishes annual estimates of Personal Consumption Expenditures by state, but annual data is not terribly helpful in tracking situation during the pandemic.

At the Arkansas Economic Development Institute, we have been tracking one set of proxies for consumer spending since 2015—Arkansas Taxable Sales (ATS).  ATS is a simple extrapolation from state sales tax receipts: Dividing total receipts by the tax rate yields an estimate of the original expenditures.[2]  Using state data on gallons of taxable motor fuel sold, along with data on average gasoline prices in the state, we have added a component to create Arkansas Taxable Sales Including Gasoline (ATSIG).

Figure 1 shows compares ATSIG to the Census measure of U.S. Retail Sales and Food Services.

Figure 1:

Sources: Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, U.S. Census Bureau, Oil Price Information Service, Arkansas Economic Development Institute

This comparison strongly suggests that Arkansas was spared the experience of a severe contraction in spending during March and April.  Indeed, by April, ATSIG was already recovering from a downturn in March, and was only lower than the previous April because April 2019 was a relatively strong month.

Although ATSIG is intended to capture trends in spending, it is not an ideal measure of consumer spending on the retail level. Sales taxes are levied on many transactions that are not consumer retail transactions, and the underlying data on net sales tax receipts is distorted by rebates for some non-retail sales and other transactions exempt from sales tax.

Constructing Arkansas Retail Sales: The Basics
An alternative source of sales tax data comes from the sales tax remittances reported to counties and municipalities.  Sales taxes are collected at the state level by the Arkansas Department of Finance and administration, then allocated to local governments, with accompanying reports of sales tax remittances by industry sector. These reports are published for the most recent 36 months at Local Tax Distribution by NAICS.  Our strategy for constructing a data set for Arkansas Retail Sales is to extract and aggregate information on sales tax receipts for all of Arkansas 75 counties, specifically for the sectors that correspond to the components of the U.S. Census Bureau’s report on Monthly Retail Trade and Food Services.

Appendix 1 shows an example of the Local Tax Distribution reports—specifically for Jackson County for October 2019.  The report lists net sales tax, net use tax and their sum by industry, delineated by four-digit NAICS codes.[3]  It also notes rebates and audits that were used to adjust the net figures.  The report is dated October 2019, corresponding to the month in which the sales tax revenue was credited to the County.  It was collected the previous month, from vendor remittances based on sales during the month before that.  So the figures reported in the October 2019 report roughly correspond to sales in August 2019.

Conceptually, the statistics on total net sales and use tax collections provide the basis for a useful measure of final spending, after rebates and audits are subtracted out.  However, the rebates and audits are recorded when they are received, rather than in the month in which the original sale occurred.  Consequently, the adjustments add noise to the monthly time series.  In constructing our measure of Arkansas Retail Sales, we start by calculating the net total less rebates and audits.[4]

To adjust for changes in local tax rates, the revenue figures are divided by the county sales tax rate in effect during the month in which the underlying sale took place, yielding a measure of taxable sales.

To construct measures comparable to the Census’ Retail Trade we select the same subset of 3-digit NAICS subsectors designated as retail, 441 through 454, plus the subsector 722 – Food Services and Drinking Places.  Table 1 lists the specific subsectors included.  The data reported in the Local Tax Distribution reports are reported for 4-digit industry groups, where the classification is self-identified by the tax remitter.

One shortcoming of the data is the practice of suppressing data for industries with fewer than three individual businesses reporting (for confidentiality reasons).  In the report for Jackson County shown in Appendix 1, 13.4% of the net total and 17.7% of the gross total are in the category “NAICS with Less Than 3 Businesses.”  Our supposition is that few 4-digit industries within the retail sector will fall into that category, and we maintain the assumption that changes in the composition of unreported industries do not bias our measurements.  Aggregating from 4-digit to 3-digit industry groups, and from county to statewide measures, should help smooth out some of the idiosyncratic fluctuations from this factor, as well as from other potential measurement problems that may be embedded in the raw data.

Table 1:

The data set we assembled runs from July 2017 through November 2020 (sales months), with statewide and county-level time-series calculated for each 3-digit industry group.  At the county level, data for 4-digit industries is sometimes sparse, and aggregation fills in some of the gaps.  However, data limitations—especially for the smaller counties in the state—suggest that estimates of monthly changes in taxable sales for individual 3-digit industry groups may be unreliable, and we report only broader aggregates for individual counties (for now).

As an example, Figure 2 shows the calculated Retail Sales for industry group 448: Clothing and Accessories Stores.  The constructed series has a clear seasonal patterns, with major peaks in December of each year, followed by a January lull and a spring surge round March.  The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing restrictions had a clear impact on sales, with sales in April 2020 that were down 54% from the previous April.

Figure 2:

Seasonality is more relevant for some subsectors than for others, but Figure 2 shows that the normal seasonal variation can be large enough to obscure events as significant as the COVID pandemic. Year-over-year growth comparisons can be used to roughly eliminate seasonal effects, but it also induces a 12-month cycle that produces notable feedback a year after large changes like those that occurred in the spring of 2020.

Seasonal Adjustment
In order to account for seasonal variation, and for comparison with seasonally adjusted data on U.S. Retail Trade and Food Services, we implement a simple seasonal adjustment procedure.  The data series are too short to use sophisticated algorithms like the Census X-13 model.  And experimentation with a simple centered-moving-average approach revealed in important complication:  the implementation of Act 822 in 2019, which mandated that out-of-state retailers collect and remit sales and use taxes for online sales.

This change induced a shift in use-tax collections that represented a broadening of the tax base rather than an increase in spending, but it is an effect that turns out to be statistically significant for some subsectors.  Because the change was associated with an abrupt increase in tax collections in July 2019, simple MA seasonal factors were biased by the effect.

Consequently, we implemented a model-based approach to seasonal adjustment.  For each sector a (log) linear regression model was estimated, where the regressors include an implicit constant, a time-trend, and a full set of monthly seasonal dummy variables.  The regression also includes a dummy variable that takes on the value of one for July 2019 forward.  Regressions were estimated using OLSQ for the period July 2017 through February 2020.  Because the model is estimated in natural logs, the coefficient on the July 2019 dummy variable represents a direct estimate of the percent increase in tax-revenues associated with the implementation of Act 822.  The coefficients on the seasonal dummy variables are then used to calculate multiplicative seasonal factors.

This methodology produces, as a by-product, estimates of the magnitude of the out-of-state “internet sales tax effect” that accompanied Act 822.  For Total Retail and Food Service Sales, this produced an estimate of the internet sales tax effect of 4.8%.  For total taxable sales, including non-retail components, the effect was estimated to be 4.2%. These are preliminary estimates and will be explored in more detail in further research.

Figure 3 illustrates how the not-seasonally adjusted series are decomposed into trend and seasonal factors, again using Subsector 448 as an example.  The trend-shift in July 2019 represents an estimated increase of 3.8%, corresponding to the Act 822-effect.  The dashed line shows the trend plus estimates of recurring seasonal factors.  The deviation of the actual data from the dashed line reveals, indirectly, the seasonally-adjusted series.

Figure 3:

Figure 4 displays the seasonally adjusted series, after applying the estimated seasonal factors. With this refinement, the decline of sales to 54% below trend in April is evident.

Figure 4:

Gasoline and Automobiles
The procedures described above were implemented directly for 11 of the 13 subsectors included in Retail Trade and Food Services.  However, two subsectors require special treatment: gasoline and automobiles.  The Local Tax Distribution reports include tax revenue derived from sales at gasoline stations (NAICS 447) and automobile dealerships (NAICS 441), but gasoline itself is not subject to sales tax and automobiles are taxed at the local level on a per-vehicle basis.

Gasoline:  In order to include gasoline in the statewide aggregate, we incorporate the gasoline component from ATSIG:  Namely, statewide gasoline sales are calculated as the product of the monthly average gasoline price for Arkansas (obtained from the Oil Price Information Service) and the number of taxable gallons of gasoline sold (as reported by the Motor Fuel Tax division of the Department of Finance and Administration).

The estimated value for total gasoline sales is added to the estimate of taxable sales at gasoline stations (NAICS Code 441) as calculated using the Local Tax Distribution Reports.  This unweighted sum generates values for gasoline station sales that represents 11% of total Retail Trade and Food Services for Arkansas, compared with an 8% share in the U.S. Census data (2019 averages).

Lacking any information on county-level sales of gasoline, the broadest retail sales measure we are able to generate for individual counties is Retail Trade and Food Services ex Gas.

Automobiles:  Automobiles are subject to county and municipal sales taxes on a per-vehicle basis.  Specifically, the local sales tax for automobiles is $25 per vehicle for each percentage point of the local tax rate.  So, for example, if a county’s tax rate is 1.5%, the tax would be $37.50.  Consequently, the local tax collection data provides a measure of the number of vehicles sold, but not their valuation.

The revenue from this tax—reported on the Local Tax Distribution reports in a separate line from the NAICS code data—is used to create an index of vehicles sold, with the county totals aggregated to yield a statewide index.  The index is combined with data from NAICS code 441, Motor Vehicle and Parts dealers using the following equation:

SALES441 = NAICS441 + α*INDEX,

Where SALES441 is the total retail sales for Subsector 441, NAICS441 is the total retail sales for the non-automobile components, INDEX is the automobile index, and α is a constant that is set so that the ratio of SALES441 to Total Retail Sales and Food Services less Gasoline is equal to the nationwide ratio for the period July-December 2019.  The calculated value of α, 16,043, is assumed to be a constant over the sample period.

The SALES441 variable represents 19.2% of total Retail Sales in Arkansas, compared with 19.9% for the U.S. Retail Trade and Food Services nationwide (2019 averages).

Monroe and Saline Counties
Two counties present an additional complication:  Monroe County has no countywide sales tax, and Saline County established their county-wide tax only in April 2019.  For both counties, we construct county sales data by summing over the municipalities within the county that collect local sales taxes.[5]  These measures are, by construction, incomplete so some scaling is necessary.

For Monroe County, the totals calculated by summing over municipalities represents 0.139% of the total state excluding Monroe.  In terms of personal income, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that Monroe County’s share of state Personal Income is 0.183%.  Consequently, the raw data from the city aggregates is scaled up, multiplying by a factor of 1.32.

For Saline County, the county sales tax data accumulated since mid-2019 provide a basis for more detailed scaling:  For retail sales in NAICS codes 44 and 45 (excluding 441, Motor Vehicles and Parts Dealers), total county sales tax collections run approximately 20% higher than the sum of the municipalities.  The municipal-tax measures also generate a much smaller total for Motor Vehicles and Parts, with the countywide measure since mid-2019 running almost exactly twice the magnitude of total of municipalities.  On the other hand, total food services sales (NAICS 722) are approximately equal using either the county-wide or sum-of-municipalities approach.  These three scaling factors (1.2, 2.0 and 1.0) are used as multipliers to scale up the components of Retail Sales for Saline County.

It is expected that with the accumulation of additional data over time, our retail sales data for Saline County will be revised to reflect the actual county-wide data, using the municipal data to construct historical values prior to April 2019.  For now, however, the municipal aggregate is maintained as a consistent time series.

Total Retail and Food Services Sales for Arkansas
After constructing the data for each three-digit industry subsector by summing across counties, each subsector is seasonally adjusted and the components are summed to produce seasonally adjusted aggregates.  The final results, series for Arkansas Retail and Food Services Sales, are displayed in Figure 5.

Figure 5:

 

Data for Arkansas Retail and Food Service Sales for July 2017 through December 2020 are available in an Excel Spreadsheet:  Arkansas-Retail-Sales-Dec-2020.

The data set includes statewide aggregates and components, both seasonally adjusted and not-seasonally adjusted.  County-level data for Total Retail and Food Service Sales ex Gas, as well as ex Auto and Gas, are available on a not-seasonally adjusted basis.

A PDF File of this report is available HERE:  Arkansas Retail Sales – A New Data Set from AEDI

 

Endnotes:

[1] The Census Bureau has begun publishing statistics on Monthly State Retail Sales (MSRS), but the data set is still a work in progress.

[2] In implementation, ATS is calculated using the .25% Conservation Tax, which has been invariant to recent changes in the taxable status of groceries and other special exemptions.  More details of its construction is available at https://arkansaseconomist.com/arkansas-taxable-sales/.

[3] NAICS is an acronym for North American Industrial Classification System, https://www.census.gov/naics/.

[4] The two methodologies—the use of total net taxes versus the calculated gross—were compared in alternative data-construction exercises.  For statewide aggregates, the choice made little substantive difference, but comparisons revealed some examples of particular county-sector combinations for which the effects of the rebates and audits on monthly changes was clearly overwhelming the information in the underlying gross collections data.

[5] In Monroe County, the municipalities with sales taxes are Clarendon, Brinkley, Roe and Holly Grove.  In Saline County, taxes are collected by Bryant, Shannon Hills, Benton, Bauxite and Haskell.

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Arkansas Employment and Unemployment – February 2021

Arkansas labor market conditions changed little in February.  The unemployment rate ticked down by 0.1 percentage point to 4.5%, but both the household and payroll data showed declines in total employment.  One year after the pre-COVID-19 business cycle peak, employment growth remains weak and the unemployment rate elevated.  Nevertheless, the Arkansas data show that labor market conditions remain significantly better than the national economy overall.  The U.S. unemployment rate was 6.2% in February.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

The downtick in the unemployment rate reflected a continuing decline in the number of unemployed, which has declined from a peak of over 137 thousand in April to 61.6 thousand in February 2021 — about 9.5 thousand higher than a year ago.  Household employment also declined in February, down 10.8 thousand.  Compared to a year earlier, employment is down by over 18 thousand.  The Labor Force (the sum of employed and unemployed) dropped by nearly 13 thousand in February.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS)

Payroll Employment
Arkansas nonfarm payroll employment declined by 3.4 thousand in February, the first reported decline since last April (seasonally adjusted data, recently revised). Employment remained about 2.8% below year-ago levels, while the national statistics show year-over-year job losses of 6.2%.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Statistics (CES)

Employment declines were distributed broadly across sectors, with only two sectors increasing:  Education and Health services increased by 300 jobs (entirely in Health Care) and Other Services increased by 600.  As shown in the third column of the table below, job losses were relatively large in three sectors that have been recovering with particular vigor:  Construction was down by 900, Retail Trade was down by 400, and Leisure & Hospitality was down 2,200.  All three are likely to have been affected by severe weather conditions in mid-February.  Both Construction and Retail remain above levels of a year earlier, but all other sectors show year-over-year declines to varying degrees.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Employment Statistics (CES)

Overall, the employment report for February is mixed.  A decline in the number of unemployed is welcome, but declines in employment suggest a pause in the pace of recovery.  However, there is no indication of a new, ongoing period of weakness setting in.  The mixed nature of the report suggests that recovery in labor markets is a long, gradual process—sometimes with bumps along the way.

# # #

Seasonally adjusted data for Arkansas nonfarm payroll employment, reported in a format consistent with the monthly news release from the Arkansas Division of Workforce Services, can be found here: Table-Seasonally Adjusted NFPE. 

 

 

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Special Reports: Impact of Covid-19 on the Arkansas Economy

Arkansas Consumer Spending in 2020
One of the most significant and unexpected features of the Arkansas economy during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the robust behavior of consumer spending…
Read more…

Leisure and Hospitality Industries in Arkansas–2020
Of all the sectors of the economy hat have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, industries in the Leisure and Hospitality category have been among the hardest-hit…
Read more…

Forecast Update (July)
“Incoming data have continued to show a more rapid recovery from the COVID-19 shutdowns than previously expected.”
Read more…

Forecast Update (June)
Information since May has suggested that Arkansas has not been as severely impacted as other parts of the country, and that the sharp declines in national employment have abated.
Read more…

Forecast Update (May)
“The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be more rapid and more severe than initially expected… In this updated report we present new projections for the Arkansas economy.”
Read more…

Forecast Update (April)
“In this note we update that forecast with new estimates of the magnitude of the downturn. We also update and extend our previous guidance on how the forecast is likely to impact sales tax receipts of local governments.”
Read more …

Implications for Local Government Sales Tax Collections
“In this note, we focus on consumer spending and the outlook for sales tax collections by county and municipal governments.” Read more…

Arkansas Economic Outlook (March)
“It appears that a dramatic downturn in economic activity over the remainder of 2020 is unavoidable for the nation and for Arkansas.”  Read more…

 

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