In a consumer-driven economy, what retailers say about their businesses is very important. For the most part, the retail sector has been saying that business conditions are getting better. A lot of retail stocks performed very well up until the recent stock market correction and valuations are reasonable. I’ve been writing about an underlying strength in the stock market and the U.S. economy and you can see it right now in the retail sector.
The strong first-quarter financial results of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE/WMT) beat consensus and the company expects strong profit growth in the current quarter. A lot of other brand-name companies in the retail sector reported very good numbers for the first quarter and many retail stocks are trading close to record highs on the stock market. Right now, with all the available news and lower oil prices, I’d say that second-quarter earnings season is shaping up to be surprisingly strong.
So, we have a stock market that’s in correction; however, economic news is showing mixed, but generally improving data. Lower oil prices stimulate consumers to spend and they lower the cost of doing business in the industrial sector. While speculators might bet that lower oil prices are a put option on the global economy, the spot price action directly affects the retail sector and that’s good for the economy.
As I keep saying, if we didn’t have the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, I believe the stock market would be a lot higher than it is currently. Corporate earnings growth may not be robust, but it isn’t flat either. The retail sector has been and should continue to be strong through to the end of this year. (See Wall Street Beats Main Street Again.) As well, a lot of industrial companies are expecting a solid bottom half to 2012. And the outlook for the consumer goods sector is also strong, with companies like Colgate-Palmolive Company (NYSE/CL) and Kimberly-Clark Corporation (NYSE/KMB) trading at all-time record price highs on the stock market.
The structural problems in the U.S. economy and the eurozone are almost entirely related to sovereign debt. This is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed by policymakers. But consumers are doing their part and, as stock market investors, we can see this in the numbers. I fully expect the retail sector to keep outperforming over the coming quarters and the strength in this industry should trickle down to other sectors for a better-than-expected second-quarter earnings season. That’s my current view right now.