Today, shoppers across America will participate in the largest shopping day of the year: Black Friday. The National Retail Federation is estimating that 140.1 million customers will be shopping on Black Friday weekend, down from the 2013 estimate of 140.3 million customers. The actual result from 2013 was 248.7 million shoppers, an increase of 77.26 percent over the predicted value. A similar percentage over the predicted value for 2014 would mean an actual number of shoppers close to 248.3 million.
The NRF estimates that total sales for the holiday season will be $619.1 billion, up from $592.6 billion in 2013. This would be an annual increase of 4.1 percent. This year, the NRF also estimates that retailers will hire between 730,000 and 790,000 seasonal employees, compared with the actual 768,000 they hired during the 2013 holiday season.
Many ordinary people, as well as many economists, think of this spending and the increase in seasonal jobs as a boost to the economy. To think this is to commit the broken window fallacy, as such thinking fails to account for what people would do with their money if they were not spending it on holiday gifts, or what they could do with money that they would not have to pay back in interest to lenders if they had not engaged in deficit spending during the holiday season. In other words, it focuses only on what is seen, and ignores opportunity costs. If people would save their money rather than spending it on various holiday gifts, then this money would be invested in one thing or another. As Henry Hazlitt explains in Chapter 23 of Economics in One Lesson, saving is really just another form of spending, and one that has a greater tendency to allocate resources where they are most needed.
There is also the matter of malinvestment, which according to Austrian business cycle theory, is one cause of recessions. Malinvestment occurs to the extent that people purchase unwanted gifts (which promotes overproduction and misallocation of resources) and/or use money they do not have (which squanders more resources in interest payments on credit cards). It must be noted that the case of holiday shopping does not exactly follow the Austrian business cycle theory, as there is no credit expansion by a central bank that drives the malinvestment, and the boom suddenly halts on its own when the holiday season ends. That being said, when we look at the average monthly returns on the Standard and Poor’s 500, for example, we notice that aside from the historically abysmal returns from investing during the month of September, the worst months for investing are February, May, and March. (April would likely be bad as well if not for income tax returns providing an artificial economic boost.) An economic downturn occurs in the historical average following the holiday season, but as this has become an expected annual occurrence, many analysts simply do not look for an explanation of these results, as they are perceived to be natural. Even so, this appears to be a small-scale psuedo-Austrian business cycle that repeats annually.
With these arguments in mind, would we all be better off if we just canceled the holiday shopping season? It is an open question, but the Austrian School of economics suggests that we could be.