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Arkansas Taxable Sales – Update

As noted in a recent post announcing Arkansas Taxable Sales for the first quarter of 2010, the initial data are preliminary until after more detailed statistics are published by the Department of Finance and Administration (DF&A).  With the release of Arkansas Fiscal Notes for April 2010, revised figures are now available.

The final data show a slightly smaller sales figure for the first quarter, with a downward revision amounting to only 0.25 percent.  The final data still show a strong gain in the 2010:Q1, up 2.1% (seasonally adjusted).  This follows a 1.0% gain in the fourth quarter of last year.

TextBox2010Q1

The release this morning of the monthly general revenue report for May also provides information to update the monthly series with preliminary data for April 2010.   These estimates show that  Arkansas Taxable Sales in April were up 1.7 percent from March (seasonally adjusted).  Although these data are based on preliminary and incomplete information, it would appear that retail sales were off to a strong start in the second quarter of 2010. 

Arkansas Taxable Sales statistics are constructed by the Institute for Economic Advancement using tax collection data from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. Data for April 2010 are preliminary.
Arkansas Taxable Sales statistics are constructed by the Institute for Economic Advancement using tax collection data from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration. Data for April 2010 are preliminary.

 Updated and revised data are available in Excel spreadsheet form by clicking here.

Arkansas Taxable Sales up 2.4% in the First Quarter

“Sales rose by 2.4 percent in the first quarter of 2010 following a 1.0 percent increase in the fourth quarter of 2009…”

As described in a previous article, data on state sales tax collections can be used to measure overall sales activity in the state, producing a data series we called Arkansas Taxable Sales.  The Institute for Economic Advancement has developed this measure to help fill an existing gap in the availability of timely, accurate data on the retail sales sector of the Arkansas economy.

The latest report on state revenues from the Department of Finance and Administration showed that April gross receipts collections (primarily sales taxes) were up from the previous year, and were 0.7 percent above DFA’s forecast.   With this information, preliminary* data on Arkansas Taxable Sales for the first quarter of 2010 can be estimated.

After adjustments for the timing of tax collections relative to underlying sales, changes in tax laws, and seasonal patterns in the data, the Arkansas Taxable Sales series serves as a proxy measure for recent conditions in the retail sales sector. 

The new reading on this statistic shows that sales rose by 2.4 percent in the first quarter of 2010 following a 1.0% increase in the fourth quarter of 2009, lifting sales to a level 3.4 percent higher than in the trough that is now evident in third quarter of 2009.

Arkansas Taxable Sales data are constructed by the Institute for Economic Advancement using sales and use tax collections data from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.
Arkansas Taxable Sales statistics are constructed by the Institute for Economic Advancement using tax collection data from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.

The first quarter data indicate a  pattern of recovery in Arkansas retail sales.  With two consecutive quarterly increases, this is a clear indication that positive growth has taken hold in the Arkansas retail sales sector.  Mirroring similar gains that we’ve seen in statistics for retail sales nationwide, this information confirms recent trends suggesting that Arkansas is firmly back in the expansion phase of the business cycle.

Arkansas Taxable Sales data (Excel file)

* Data are preliminary until the release of the DFA report, Arkansas Fiscal Notes, for April 2010.  Data will be updated when information becomes available.

Arkansas Taxable Sales

A new indicator of economic activity for the Arkansas economy

Retail sales statistics for the U.S. economy are regularly compiled by the Census Bureau.  However, there is no readily-available, timely source of data for retail sales on the state level.  One approach to filling this gap is to use state sales tax collections as a measure of taxable sales.   In principle, the approach is quite simple:  Taxable sales = Sales tax collections/tax rate.  In order to extrapolate sales statistics from tax data, however, it is necessary to consider the coverage of the tax, changes in tax law, and the timing of state revenue collection relative to the underlying sales.

Arkansas has four separate sales taxes imposed on a common base:  a general sales and use tax of 4.5 percent, a tax for the educational adequacy fund of  0.875 percent, a property tax relief tax of 0.5 percent, and a conservation tax of 0.125 percent (for a total tax rate of 6.0 percent).  Each of these taxes could conceivably be used to identify overall sales activity.  However, recent changes in tax structure complicate matters.  In particular, the tax rate on grocery purchases was lowered from 6.0 percent to 3.0 percent in July 2007, then lowered again to 2.0 percent in July 2009.  When these tax cuts were adopted by the state legislature, the associated revenue reductions were specified to be subtracted from three of the four specific taxes, in proportion to their relative rates.  As a result, these three taxes (general sales and use, educational adequacy, and property tax relief) no longer represent a constant fraction of total sales–rather, they represent a weighted average of taxes on non-grocery items (at the statutory rate) and taxes on groceries (at a lower rate).  Only the 1/8-percent conservation tax remains at its statutory rate.  (The conservation tax is not affected by recent tax law changes because it is written into the state constitution.)  The conservation tax is therefore a unique candidate for use in estimating the underlying tax base.

A second important factor for deriving sales information from tax collection data is the timing of tax receipts relative to the  sales being taxed.  Tax laws in Arkansas impose different requirements on different sized businesses.   Some larger firms can choose to pay estimated taxes for the current month, while some smaller firms are required to file and pay only quarterly or annually. For most business, however, the key deadline comes on the 24th day of the month.  On that date, final statements and payments for taxes owed in the previous month are due.

The tax payment deadlines suggest that revenues received by the state during a month primarily reflect taxable sales from the previous month.  An examination of the raw data supports this timing convention.  For example, when the special conservation tax was implemented in 2001—and again when the earmarked educational adequacy tax was introduced in 2004—revenues received in the first month of implementation were a very small proportion of subsequent months.  The seasonal pattern of sales tax receipts is also indicative:  The most prominent recurrent peak in tax receipts occurs in January, one month after the December retail sales peak.  As the payment regulations indicate, tax receipts reflect a mix of taxable sales from current and previous months.  Nevertheless, the best practical estimate seems to be a simple one-month lag.

So, using receipts from the conservation tax and adjusting the timing to reflect the one-month collection lag, we can calculate a measure of taxable sales.  Monthly data for this series are illustrated in the figure below:

Arkansas Taxable Sales

 Although there is a great deal of month-to-month variability in this measure, recent observations suggest that sales activity reached a low point around mid-2009, with signs of recovery since then.

In interpreting the data, a number of caveats should be considered:

  • The series is labeled “taxable sales” rather than “retail sales” because Arkansas sales and use taxes apply not only to retail transactions, but also to some business-to-business transactions.
  • Some of the monthly variability in the series can be attributed to specific institutional factors in the tax collection process.  For example, the rather sharp upturn observed for December 2009 (reflecting tax collections in January 2010) was partly attributable to “one-time gains from audit payments” [see General Revenue Report for January (FY 2010)].
  • Another previous change in the tax structure should also be mentioned:  in 2004, with the introduction of the educational adequacy tax, the sales tax base was broadened.  Although there is no evident break in the path of total tax revenues, this consideration warns against making direct comparisons between post-2004 and pre-2004 data.  (The expansion of the tax base accounts for a revenue increase of only about 0.5 percent.)
  • The most recent observations in the series should be considered preliminary.  Data for the conservation tax are not explicitly reported in the General Revenue Reports, but are available in the publication Arkansas Fiscal Notes, which is available a few weeks after the initial report.  Until the publication of Arkansas Fiscal Notes, the change in general gross receipts is used as a preliminary approximation.

Given some of these considerations, it is best not to focus on very short-term changes in the data.  The chart below shows the results of averaging the data over calendar quarters.  The chart juxtaposes Arkansas Taxable Sales with a quarterly measure of  U.S. retail sales.

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

A comparison of the measures for Arkansas and the U.S. reveals an interesting pattern:  Sales in Arkansas reached a peak about one quarter later than the U.S., and experienced sharp declines with a similar lag.  Moreover, the percent change from peak to trough is smaller for the Arkansas data than for the U.S.  This pattern is consistent with the notion that Arkansas’ economy was dragged into recession by economic weakness in the rest of the country.  Both measure show increase toward the end of 2009, confirming the general observation that both the national and Arkansas economies are beginning to recover from the recession of 2008-09.