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Retailers see earnings growth ahead but investors are lukewarm

Lululemon logo on a wall

Retailers and retail-related stocks are among the top performers in the Consumer Discretionary Select Sector SPDR Fund (NYSEARCA: XLY). However, that's faint praise: Retail stocks have lagged in the broader market and their sector. 

Walmart Inc. (NYSE: WMT) and Costco Wholesale Corp. (NASDAQ: COST) are among the top 10 large-cap consumer staples gainers in January, but the sector has been posting only lackluster returns since the start of 2024. 

The S&P 500 is up 2.61% this month, while the consumer staples sector has returned 0.35%. 

Consumers have freely opened their wallets, driving economic growth and defying economists' recession predictions. 

Clothing retailers see big gains ahead

Apparel retailers like Lululemon Athletica Inc. (NASDAQ: LULU)Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE: ANF)Urban Outfitters Inc. (NASDAQ: URBN) and American Eagle Outfitters Inc. (NYSE: AEO) guiding toward strong earnings performance, continuing their momentum from 2023. 

Among that group, mid-cap Abercrombie & Fitch is the only one in rally mode, with the others showing mild selloffs, with support at or above their 50-day moving averages.

The SPDR S&P Retail ETF (NYSEARCA: XRT) is down 3.77% in January after returning to 21.54% in 2023. This ETF tracks an index of large, mid and small-cap stocks from nine sub-industries within retail. 

This index uses a modified equal-weighted approach, which means it's not just the behemoths that drive index performance, as is the case with the market-cap-weighted S&P 500. 

For example, within the XRT retail ETF, Abercrombie's January return of 16.14% means it's raced its way to the pole position. 

Consumer confidence at two-year high

But the overall performance of retailers indicates a disconnect between consumer confidence, which reached a two-year high in January, and retail stocks. 

In theory, retailers should be among the market's leaders, as earnings expectations are high and being revised higher. 

Oppenheimer's Brian Nagel said he doesn't believe consumers are feeling the effect of interest-rate increases when it comes to shopping, although that's certainly been true for the housing market.

In a January 19 research note, Bank of America analysts said, "Ignore retail sales; the economy is cooling."

B of A analysts wrote, "We look for a reversal of December's strength in January. Consumer spending may be healthy, but it's not surging or slumping, and we don't think the report says much about the Fed's ability to cut rates beginning in March as we expect." 

Analysts see retail sales growing in 2024

With both large and mid-sized retailers forecasting earnings growth this year and analysts agreeing, there's no suggestion that retail sales will fall off a cliff.

According to market researcher Insider Intelligence, in 2024, retail e-commerce sales will grow 10.1% over 2023, while non-e-commerce sales will grow 2%. 

The financial services industry may be offering a hint of what's to come: When it reported fourth-quarter results, Discover Financial Services (NYSE: DFS) said it was increasing its credit-card delinquency reserve and said the rate of payments delinquent by 30 days or more rose in the fourth quarter. The rate of personal loan chargeoffs also increased. 

That could indicate that higher rates are finally catching up with consumers, causing investors to be more cautious. 

Factors behind retail stocks' selloff

A look at the retail ETF chart shows the volume of selling increased in the first three weeks of January before buyers took control the week ended January 26. 

That could signal a few things.

First, investors may be taking some profits in retail industry stocks after a run-up that began in October. 

In addition, investors may be pulling back the reins on retail stocks as the market is less certain about Federal Reserve interest rate cuts shortly. In a twist, developments such as strong consumer spending dampen investors’ enthusiasm about near-term cuts.

Finally, as the data from Discover Financial show, there's a growing sentiment that consumers may be starting to cut back and that even a pause in rate hikes will take some time to work through the system.

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