The US retail apocalypse is killing jobs, and it's left 'the economy vulnerable to an adverse shock'

  • The US retail apocalypse has led to a flurry of retail store closures and bankruptcies.
  • Retail trade employment has dropped by 65,000 in the last 12 months, and stores which compete with online retailers are experiencing sizeable declines in employment.
  • That’s impacting some corners of the subprime loan market, and could leave the economy vulnerable.

The retail apocalypse is real. Hundreds of stores across the US have closed, as the rise of ecommerce and a surplus of mall space have combined to bring multiple retailers to their knees.

And in a big research report out November 13, UBS economist Seth Carpenter and his team undertook a deep dive on the impact of these retail struggles on the broader economy. The takeaway: retail job losses are accelerating, consumer delinquencies are spiking in certain corners of the market, and while this doesn’t likely pose a risk to the financial system, it could “leave the economy vulnerable to an adverse shock.”

Job losses are accelerating

“In the 12- months ending in October, the US economy added roughly 162k jobs per month, a pace almost 40k below the average pace for most of the expansion,” UBS notes. “Almost all of this slowing in employment growth over the past year is from retail employment.”

For example, retail trade employment added 25,000 jobs per month on average for much of the expansion, but by early 2017, the category reversed and has shed 65,000 jobs in the past 12 months. And the rise of ecommerce is at least partly to blame, according to UBS.

“The stores suffering the most direct competition from online sales — electronics stores, sporting goods stores, clothing retailers, and department stores — are all experiencing sizable declines in employment with those declines accelerating over the last year,” UBS said.

Consumer delinquencies are spiking

Meanwhile, consumer delinquencies are picking up. According to new research from the New York Federal Reserve, the delinquency rate for subprime loans originated by auto finance companies is spiking, for example. And there has been a spike in mobile home delinquencies too, according to UBS.

“We look to consumer delinquencies only because we believe they provide a window into the health of the consumer sector and as evidence that the frictions of labour market reallocation are real,” UBS said. “That the delinquent groups align well with the income brackets for retail workers indicates to us that the decline in retail is not a positive outcome for these workers.”

To be sure, this uptick in consumer delinquencies likely doesn’t pose a risk to the financial system as a whole. But UBS says the “worsening repayment behaviour by households is strong evidence that the economic security for a subset of US consumers has deteriorated.”

“Vulnerable to an adverse shock”

The question then is: how big of a risk is this for the broader economy?

UBS notes that disruption happens. Manufacturing, for example, shed 5 million jobs between 2000 and 2015, but many of those individuals found work in other sectors, including retail. UBS expects the economy to withstand the disruption brought about by the rise of ecommerce and the struggles of traditional brick-and-mortar. And in the long run, a shift from stores to lower cost, labour-light online sales could be positive for the economy.

“That said, transitions are hard and rapid transitions can lead to temporary economic dislocations,” UBS said.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.