Investors can scrub government statistics for a sense of consumer strength or they can witness what the nation’s retailers are experiencing. In the week ahead, more than a half dozen major retailers will report their 2015 results (including the final tally of the holiday spending season). They also will give investors a real-time sense of consumer confidence.
The quarterly results from the likes of Home Depot and Macy’s (reporting Tuesday), Target (reporting Wednesday) and JC Penney (reporting Friday) come after the nation’s biggest retailer, Walmart, saw its sales drop in the final quarter of last year compared to a year earlier. The sagging sales came from Walmart’s international operations. That’s a reflection of the weak global economic environment that has been at the heart of this year’s stock market volatility.
Like unhappy families, each retailer is challenged in its own way. Store locations, merchandise mix, fashion trends, unseasonal weather, online competition, global currency markets – all will impact a chain’s business trends quarter-to-quarter. Seen together, the business results from retailers provide a glimpse of Americans’ spending appetite.
In the U.S., consumers are responsible for about 70 percent of economic activity. That activity can and has softened without the consumer shrinking. Instead, what has been shrinking in the economy is spending by companies on equipment and inventory. Consumers have been holding up just fine, thank you.
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It isn’t pie-eyed optimism propping up consumers. Low gasoline prices, low unemployment and low interest rates are. Those economic qualities won’t help a retailer’s profits if they’re not selling stuff shoppers want. But if stores are selling what shoppers want, they are spending.
Financial journalist Tom Hudson hosts The Sunshine Economy on WLRN-FM in Miami. Follow him on Twitter @HudsonsView.