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Even after last weeks steep selloff in the commodities markets, the Flight to Safety trade is still on big time. Gold may have retreated from its all-time high, but applications to purchase a handgun continue soaring to record levels.
According to the FBI, background-check applications for handgun buyers are on a record-setting pace so far this year. In this years first quarter, Bloomberg News reports, the FBIs Instant Criminal Background Check System processed 4.25 million requests on prospective gun buyers up 16% from a year earlier. If the current pace continues, the number of gun checks would hit a seventh straight annual record.
Americas gun-buying craze stands in stark contrast to the dismal trend of overall consumer spending. Bloomberg notes that spending on guns, ammo and other sporting equipment rose about 10% during the last 12 months or more than four times the 2.5% increase in total consumer spending. Although spending on guns and ammo has been outpacing total consumer spending for more than a decade, the gun-buying trend has been accelerating during the last few months.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart CEO, Mike Duke, observes that the retail giants core shoppers are running out of money much faster than a year ago. Since many of Wal-Marts core shoppers live paycheck to paycheck, they typically do most of their shopping at the beginning of the month and less of it at the end. Purchases are really dropping off by the end of the month, even more than last year, Duke says. This end-of-month [purchases] cycle is growing to be a concern.
This troubling trend is not just a Wal-Mart thing. As a retailer that averages 140 million shoppers per week to its US stores, Wal-Marts concern is also the American economys concern. Wal-Mart is, as CNNMoney puts it, a barometer of the health of the consumer and the economy. Wal-Mart has struggled with seven straight quarters of sales declines in its stores.
Maybe thats why Wal-Mart announced last week that it would resume selling guns and ammo in many of its stores ending a five-year hiatus. (Handguns will not return to Wal-Mart shelves, but rifles and other long guns will, according to a recent press release).
Your California editor is not certain that Americas gun boom (pun only partially intended) means something, but he suspects it doesnt mean nothing. Roughly 14 million Americans about one in twenty tried to buy a handgun last year. Another 16 million will shop for a sidearm this year. These 16 million folks certainly do not share identical motives for their purchases, but they do share an identical objective: to arm themselves. They are buying handguns in record numbers because they are feeling uneasy in record numbers.
It would be easy to dismiss the gun boom as an irrelevant cultural curiosity if it wasnt so seemingly relevant. Investors are also arming themselves in record numbers. They are buying gold and silver and oil and almost any other commodity under the sun. At the same time, they are also unloading US dollars in exchange for almost any other currency under the sun. The Norwegian kroner, Swiss franc, Aussie dollar and Canadian dollar are all trading near all-time highs against the US dollar.
Something serious is going on here. Americas economic recovery may be much weaker than advertised, while her economic vulnerability may be much greater than widely believed.
Confident citizens do not usually buy record amounts of guns and gold.
Reprinted with permission from The Daily Reckoning.
Eric J. Fry has been a specialist in international equities since the early 1980s. He was a professional portfolio manager for more than 10 years, specializing in international investment strategies and short-selling. Mr. Fry also publishes investment insights and commentary under his own byline as Editor of The Daily Reckoning. His views and investment insights have appeared in numerous publications including Time, Barron's, Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Business Week, USA Today, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and Money. He appears regularly on business news stations like CNBC and Fox.