How much is the U.S. consumer slowing down really? Wall Street wants to know.
By Justin Lahart, CNN/Money senior writer
NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - U.S. consumers are tired. Really tired. Really.
So tired that they aren't going to buy one more thing. There they go, trooping past Best Buy and the Sharper Image, casting nary more than a sideways glance in the direction of the Gap (Ooh, those are nice! Do they come in khaki?) ignoring even (well, almost) the siren call of Bed Bath & Beyond.
No, it's straight to food court for everyone, where they can rest their aching dogs and eat some restorative sticky buns.
Okay, so U.S. consumers never really get so tired that they stop buying stuff. In truth, there have only been two years in the last fifty where we've seen a decline in the absolute level of consumer spending. But the pace of growth does vary, and to many it appears that lately it has begun to slow markedly. How much it has slowed, and how protracted the slowdown will be, is what Wall Streeters want know.
January has been a hard read. The government's retail sales data came in worse than expected Thursday, if you look at the overall figures. Take away car sales, bulls point out, and they came in better than expected.
But much of that good "core" number was due to higher prices in the food and energy sector, the bears respond; sales of big ticket items were abysmal. Nobody buys a washing machine in a snowstorm (the weather was bad in January), counter the bulls. And on it goes.
Meantime, company sales reports came in far better than expected in January -- but of course that may have just been delayed shopping (gift cards and such) from a holiday shopping season that didn't go off quite so well as expected.
"It looks to us like after a slowdown in the fourth quarter, spending is picking up in the first," said J.P. Morgan economist Jim Glassman.
Meantime, Friday's surprising jolt lower in the University of Michigan's consumer sentiment index had little to do with people's willingness to spend, said Glassman, and everything to do with a flurry of unsettling news about David Kay, the search for weapons of mass destruction, George Bush's time in the National Guard and the like.
The jobs situation, though not improving as much as we would like, is getting better, Glassman said, the stock market is higher and tax refund checks are on their way.
Not everyone is quite so sanguine, however, saying that U.S. consumers' buying power has been buoyed along by easy credit.
"Long term interest rates are higher now than they were in the second and third quarters, and debt levels are higher too," said First Albany chief investment officer Hugh Johnson. "Yes, consumer spending will continue to expand, but it will be slower."
Johnson believes the recent performance of consumer-oriented stocks bears this out. Where many did better than the overall market last year, they've recently begun to lag it, prompting him to recently go underweight the group in his fund after being overweight for some time.
With hope some of the confusion on the consumer will be cleared up in the week ahead, as retailers begin to release annual results. (Because the holiday season is too busy a time for most retailers to be preparing annual reports, most end their fiscal years Jan. 31.)
Chief among them will be Wal-Mart (WMT: Research, Estimates), reporting Thursday, whose annual domestic sales of $200 billion represent more than 8 percent of U.S. non-auto retail sales. Earlier this month the big retailer posted January same-store sales -- sales at stores that have been open a year or more -- that came in well ahead of expectations. (It lowered its earnings target, however, to account for a German tax-law change.)
The key for investors, really, will be trying to figure out what Wal-Mart its says about where things are going. Can the giant retailer stick to its "Always low prices always" guns and maintain profit margins? Is it seeing any signs of full-closet effects among consumers? Are all those tax refunds people are supposed to be getting from the government this year beginning to flow into its coffers?