By Ashley Davis
Washington—The National Retail Federation has predicted that despite economic and political anxiety in the United States, the economy, and retail sales, will continue to grow largely unaffected in 2019.

In its prediction for the year ahead, released Tuesday, the NRF said that retail sales will increase between 3.8 and 4.4 percent, totaling $3.82 to $3.84 trillion. (The NRF does not include include automobiles, gas stations or restaurants in its retail calculations.)

NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay described the underlying state of the economy as “sound,” despite the recently concluded government shutdown, a volatile stock market and threats of a trade war.

“More people are working, they’re making more money, their taxes are lower and their confidence remains high. The biggest priority is to ensure that our economy continues to grow and to avoid self-inflicted wounds. It’s time for artificial problems like trade wars and shutdowns to end, and to focus on prosperity not politics.”

Last year, retail sales increased 4.6 percent over the year prior to $3.68 trillion, topping NRF’s 4.5 percent growth prediction.

Online and other non-store sales were up 10.4 percent to $682.8 billion, in line with the NRF’s prediction of a 10 to 12 percent gain.

The retail trade association is predicting the same online growth percentage this year, which would total approximately $751.1 to $764.8 billion in sales. (Online sales are included in overall 2019 estimates.)

The NRF is basing its preliminary 2018 figures on U.S. Commerce Department numbers released through November coupled with its own estimates for the month of December, as the Commerce Department has yet to release December figures due to the government shutdown.

The association also said that this year the American economy should create about 170,000 new jobs each month, down from 220,000 per month last year, but the current 4 percent unemployment rate should drop to 3.5 percent. Gross domestic product will increase about 2.5 percent from last year, and inflation and interest rates will stay low.

“Consumers are in better shape than any time in the last few years,” NRF Chief Economist Jack Kleinhenz said. “Most important for the year ahead will be the ongoing strength in the job market, which will support the consumer income and spending that are both key drivers of the economy. The bottom line is that the economy is in a good place despite the ups and downs of the stock market and other uncertainties. Growth remains solid.”

Kleinhenz noted that new tariffs enacted in 2018 on steel, aluminum and Chinese goods have yet to produce a large economic toll, but that future tariffs could potentially raise the price of consumer goods, especially if the tariffs scheduled for Chinese products that would increase them from 10 to 25 percent happens on March 1.

As for the government shutdown, the effects are hard to quantify, Kleinhenz said. Government employees will receive missed pay retroactively but spent less money in the economy, while government contractors lost out on income during the period. 

The NRF said that first-quarter economic spending also will be affected by how quickly the Internal Revenue Service will be able to handle a “potential backlog” of tax returns.

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