Investors turn negative in spite of bullish Christmas sales forecasts
Shares in US retailers are on course for their biggest quarterly sell-off since the financial crisis, putting the sector at the sharp end of Wall Street’s mounting concerns about the global economy and President Donald Trump’s trade wars. In a sudden reversal of the cautious optimism that had crept in this year over the industry’s ability to cope with the ecommerce revolution, S&P’s index of 95 leading listed retailers has dropped 17 per cent so far this quarter.
The market downturn has gathered pace just as the festive shopping season gets into full swing, in spite of a series of upbeat predictions about Christmas sales. Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation, has nudged his forecast for the holiday period higher after commerce department figures on Friday showed core retail sales surged in November by the most in a year. Investors said the sell-off, which puts the sector on track for the steepest quarterly decline since the final three months of 2008, reflected worries about gathering storm clouds for retailers next year. Luxury, middle market and budget retailers have all been hit hard. S&P 500-listed losers include upscale jeweller Tiffany, down 36 per cent for the quarter so far, and mass market chain Target, off 23 per cent. Concerns include retailers being forced to shed stock at hefty discounts, in part because they have accelerated shipments through ports to avoid being subjected to higher tariffs, which the Trump administration has since put on hold. Chad Kessler, global brand president at American Eagle Outfitters, said rivals were still being “pretty promotional” since the Black Friday sales. “It seems like a lot of retailers have kind of maintained their Thanksgiving week promotions through the month so far,” he said. Even companies thought to have successfully weathered the rise of Amazon have been caught up in the rout, including electronics retailer Best Buy, which is down 30 per cent. The sell-off has erased all gains from earlier this year, when investors drove a rally in retail stocks on signs that a strong US economy and tax cuts were helping bricks and mortar companies deal with the online threat. “People went from saying the mall is dead to the mall is back with a vengeance,” said Simeon Siegel, analyst at Instinet. “The reality is that it never died — but it was also never as healthy as people thought.” The US economy remains robust and Mr Kleinhenz now anticipates retail sales for the season to come in at the high end of the National Retail Federation’s previously issued forecast of a year-on-year rise of 4.3-4.8 per cent.
However, Michael Arone, chief investment strategist at State Street Global Advisors, said: “Investors are concerned more about the longer-term outlook for retail — and the broader structural trends, such as the shift online.” Weak economic data from Europe and Asia — figures on Friday showed retail sales in China grew at the slowest pace in 15 years in November — have meanwhile added to fears about a global downturn. Analysts also pointed to concerns that trade tensions would force US retailers to either risk volumes by raising consumer prices or absorb higher costs themselves, especially if higher tariffs were implemented next year. Executives have sought to reassure investors that they can minimise the impact on profits. Jack Calandra, chief financial officer of men’s clothing company Tailored Brands, said last week it was halving the proportion of products it sourced directly from China from 30 per cent to 15 per cent. Shares in Amazon have dropped 20 per cent for the quarter so far, paring its market capitalisation to $778bn. S&P’s Select Retail Index is equal-weighted, meaning the decline in Amazon’s stock has not had an outsized impact.