Wall Street investors look to US consumer stocks with Black Friday around the corner

Recent data has shown signs that inflation may be ebbing in the face of stronger-than-expected retail spending

Black Friday, the day after the US Thanksgiving holiday and traditionally one of the year’s biggest shopping days, may give investors greater insight into the extent that consumers are opening their wallets. Reuters
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As the most important shopping period of the year approaches, some investors are betting shares of beaten-down consumer stocks will benefit if inflation keeps falling and retail sales stay strong.

Consumer discretionary stocks, a group whose members run the gamut from Amazon.com and car maker Tesla to retailer Target, have been hit hard by surging prices, with the S&P 500’s consumer discretionary sector falling by nearly 33 per cent for the year to date compared with a near 17 per cent fall for the broader index.

Yet recent data has shown signs that inflation may be ebbing in the face of stronger-than-expected retail spending, raising cautious optimism that the economy could avoid a recession or suffer only a mild downturn.

Investors poured a net $1.05 billion into consumer discretionary stocks in the past week, the sixth-largest weekly inflows since 2008, data from Bank of America Global Research showed.

Black Friday, the day after the US Thanksgiving holiday and traditionally one of the year’s biggest shopping days, may give investors greater insight into the extent that consumers are opening their wallets.

“There’s some questions as to how strong the consumer really is, so this will be a tricky holiday season,” said Edward Yruma, an analyst at Piper Sandler. “Everybody is watching the strength of the consumer and so far the consumer has held.”

Mr Yruma is bullish on retailers Nordstrom and Target. He believes, however, it may be too early to bet on the sector as a whole because inflation remains high by historical standards, while many on Wall Street fear the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy tightening may bring on a US recession.

To be sure, consumer stocks have had more than their fair share of woes this year.

Target shares plunged on Tuesday after the company warned of “dramatic changes” in consumer behaviour that were hurting demand. Amazon.com, the world's biggest online retailer, said on October 27 it was preparing for slower growth because “people's budgets are tight” because of inflation.

Shares of the companies are down 29.6 per cent and 43.5 per cent year-to-date, respectively.

While retail sales in October were strong, data suggests that subprime auto loan delinquencies are increasing and higher-income shoppers are starting to trade down, Morgan Stanley economists said in a note on Friday.

UK's finance minister says he is focused on bringing down inflation as economy shrinks

UK's finance minister says he is focused on bringing down inflation as economy shrinks

“The consumer has been a pillar of strength this year, but as rates keep rising and the labour market slows, consumers will have no choice but to pull back on spending,” the firm's economists wrote. The bank's analysts are underweight the consumer discretionary sector.

Others, however, see reasons to remain bullish — even in the face of a potential economic downturn.

“Recession fears are so priced in to this group,” said Jim Paulsen, chief investment strategist at the Leuthold Group.

“If we have a mild recession … they will do very well from here on out.” He is betting shares of retailers, hotels and restaurants will outperform the rest of the sector in the coming year.

The consumer has been a pillar of strength this year, but as rates keep rising and the labour market slows, consumers will have no choice but to pull back on spending
Morgan Stanley economists

Some companies’ lower valuations may also give investors wriggle room if the economy slows, said Bobby Griffin, an analyst at Raymond James. His firm has a strong “buy” on shares of Home Depot, which are trading at a 15 per cent discount to their forward price-to-earnings multiple.

“We've had this fear of inflation all year and the consumer has held up pretty well so far,” he said.

At the same time, signs of consumer strength could also be a red flag to the inflation-fighting Fed, strengthening the case for the central bank to push forward with the monetary policy tightening that has pressured markets and drained risk appetite this year.

Chris Zaccarelli, chief investment officer for Independent Advisor Alliance, believes signs that consumers are not being affected by rising rates could lead to a higher-than-expected peak in the Fed’s rate rise cycle.

“We’re sceptical the worst is behind us,” he said.

Updated: November 19, 2022, 12:27 PM