Wall Street is starting to doubt that retailers can snap out of a yearlong stock-market slump as consumers increasingly tighten their belts heading into the crucial holiday shopping season.
It’s been a brutal 2022 for retail stocks. And sales from the fourth quarter, traditionally the strongest time of the year, may not be a savior this time around as more stores and chains warn that frugal shoppers are going to cut into their bottom lines.
Some traders are clearly betting against the sector or hedging their exposure to even deeper losses.
Trading volume in bearish put options for the consumer discretionary sector spiked recently, with the turnover now at levels similar to those during the March 2020 pandemic selloff. Similar skepticism was seen in May when a slew of retailers cut their annual profit forecasts.
A cautious approach is understandable. Target Corp. tumbled after announcing that sales trends softened in October, calling out weakness in key gift areas like toys. The National Retail Federation also predicted that holiday sales would grow at a significantly slower pace than last year. And Amazon.com Inc. projected the slowest holiday-quarter growth in its history, sending its market value briefly below $1 trillion.
The bad news reflects how much inflation, growing economic uncertainty and rising interest rates are weighing on holiday spending plans.
“The consumer is going to be looking for deals, and that will end up likely pressuring margins,” said Mark Stoeckle, chief executive officer of Adams Funds. “So if you believe that, why would you own these stocks right now?”
During the third quarter, the firm’s Adams Diversified Equity Fund, which has about $2 billion in assets under management, sold its stakes in Target and Walmart Inc. in favor of more defensive consumer stocks, like beverage companies and Tractor Supply Co., which sells animal feed and farm equipment.
And there clearly are more skeptics in the market. Shares out on loan for the members of the S&P 500 Consumer Discretionary Index, an indication of short positioning against the group, are up to 3.7% on average from 2.7% at the beginning of the year, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence.
The final months of the year are more crucial than ever for retailers, as the S&P 500 Retailing Index has lost more than 30% in 2022. Soaring inflation is forcing shoppers to pay more for essentials, and that’s left stores stuck with a glut of excess products, causing retailers to mark down prices at the expense of profits.
Kohl’s Corp.’s earnings report highlighted the uncertainty, as the discount department store withdrew its annual profit forecast and said that sales have slowed. While Walmart’s quarterly results topped analyst expectations, it is taking a wait-and-see approach with its holiday projections.
Target shares are down 30% this year through Friday’s close, while Kohl’s has slumped 37%. Walmart erased its loss for 2022 following earnings last week, and the stock is now up 3.8% for the year.
U.S. retail sales actually climbed the most in eight months in October, according to Commerce Department data released last week. But sales at department stores still fell, and other key discretionary categories like electronics and sporting goods declined. Looking ahead, Goldman Sachs surveyed 1,000 U.S. consumers and found that nearly half plan to spend less this holiday season than they did last year.
One thing’s for sure: it will be a bumpy ride for investors in retail shares. From 2011 to 2021, the average stock in Goldman’s basket of consumer companies saw a 2.9% move, in either direction, from the day before Thanksgiving to the day following Cyber Monday, while the SPDR S&P 500 Trust (ticker SPY) typically moved 1.3%.
Investors will be closely watching quarterly earnings reports this week from Best Buy Co., Nordstrom Inc. and several mall-based apparel retailers for further perspective on holiday sales trends.
Stacey Widlitz, president of SW Retail Advisors, said it’s difficult to predict how the next couple of months will play out, with companies trying to sell through bloated inventories as consumers curb spending.
“You’re definitely seeing a customer that’s being much more careful about what they’re buying,” she said. “It’s like the perfect storm for this holiday.”
—With assistance from Jessica Menton.
Katrina Lewis and Jan-Patrick Barnert report for Bloomberg News.