Consumer Slump Hits Online Retailers Too (#GotBitcoin)
An unexpected profit warning in Europe suggests internet stores may be less resilient than expected in consumer downturns. Consumer Slump Hits Online Retailers Too (#GotBitcoin)
Online retailers haven’t so far been properly tested by a consumer-spending downturn. Early signs from Europe suggest they won’t be as resilient as tech bulls might hope.
Roughly $3 billion has been wiped from the value of shares of ASOS and Zalando , two major European online fashion retailers, this week after the former flagged a slowdown on Monday. ASOS was hit by dismal demand in November, just like regular malls and bricks-and-mortar stores. The London-based company, which specializes in cheap but trendy clothes for 20-somethings, blamed weak consumer sentiment and “economic uncertainty.”
This is an eye opener for investors who have few clues how e-commerce will fare in the next consumer recession. During the 2008 financial crisis, most grew rapidly thanks to the shift to internet shopping. But as online markets mature—U.K. online sales are growing at half the rate they were two years ago—e-commerce companies will lose that structural boost.
Thin margins make online retailers particularly vulnerable in a slump. ASOS expects an operating margin of just 2% this year—half what it previously expected and much lower than even the most stressed high-street retailers. One reason is the need for heavy investment in automated warehouses and distribution centres. ASOS has been building a major hub in Atlanta to serve the U.S. market, for example.
Internet retailers don’t pay for prime storefronts, but they do face major logistics costs that bricks-and-mortar players don’t. One third of all clothing ordered online is returned, compared with around 8% for items bought from the shop floor. And processing a return costs $3 when it is handed to a shop, but $6 when it is shipped back to a distribution center, data from consulting firm AlixPartners show. ASOS said it has to foot the bill for free delivery to maintain an edge over traditional shops, even though orders are getting smaller.
Investors have been cooling on European internet retailers. Shares in Britain’s Boohoo.com and Germany’s Zalando were in the red for this year even before this week’s rout. ASOS shares now trade at a 50% premium to those of Zara-owner Inditex on a prospective earnings basis, compared with 180% just eight months ago. Investors still think online-only players are a better bet—but much less so than they once did.
For now, consumer confidence remains strong in the U.S., and shares in online retail giant Amazon are up 26% this year, even as the tech-heavy Nasdaq index has fallen. This week’s lesson from Europe is that e-commerce doesn’t necessarily offer protection from plunging consumer sentiment. Investors should take note before it is the U.S. economy’s turn to cool.
Drop In Consumer-Goods Imports Points To Slower U.S. Growth
U.S. posts largest petroleum products surplus on record on import decline.
U.S. imports of goods such as cellphones, toys and apparel fell sharply in September, the latest sign that slowing global growth may be spilling into the domestic economy.
Imports sank 1.7% from August to a seasonally adjusted $258.44 billion, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. The decline was led by a 4.4% drop in imports of consumer goods, followed by a 3.4% fall in imports of vehicles and auto parts. Imports of petroleum products also fell in the month, creating the largest monthly surplus in records going back to 1978.
“It could be a sign that the U.S. consumer is possibly curtailing spending,” said Pooja Sriram, a U.S. economist at Barclays, of the drop in consumer-goods imports. “We haven’t seen that category fall by this magnitude in a considerable time.”
Another possible factor is the latest round of tariffs by the Trump administration. Starting Sept. 1, the U.S. imposed 15% duties on $111 billion worth of imported tools, apparel items, footwear and electronics from China.
U.S. households have been a main driver for the economy this year as global growth has weakened and business investment has fallen amid trade uncertainties. A sustained drop in consumer spending would leave the economy vulnerable, economists say.
Consumer outlays grew at a 2.9% annual rate in the third quarter from the previous three months, the Commerce Department reported last week, down from a 4.6% increase in the second quarter. The increase helped offset a 3% decline in business investment. U.S. retail sales also fell a seasonally adjusted 0.3% in September from August.
Tuesday’s report showed imports of goods from China fell 4.9% in September from August to a seasonally adjusted $37.05 billion.
Because of month-to-month fluctuations in trade flows, economists said it was difficult to determine the extent to which the latest tariffs hampered imports.
But Hasbro, Inc., maker of Play-Doh, the board game Monopoly, and other toys and games, said tariffs prompted retailers to cancel some imports of its products from China and attempt to replace them with domestic orders, which the manufacturer wasn’t entirely able to fill.
“In the third quarter, the threat of and the implementation of tariffs in certain instances impacted our shipments and our ability to fully meet demand,” Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner said in an earnings call in October, according to a transcript by FactSet.
Xerox Holdings Corp. Chief Executive Bill Osbourn said in a conference call last week he expects the greatest impact from the September tariffs to be felt in the fourth quarter.
U.S. imports of petroleum products fell 4.6% in September from August, contributing to the record $252 million trade surplus in petroleum.
For months, the U.S. has been expected to become a net exporter of oil and petroleum products, a symbolic moment that showed the country is moving closer to the ideal of “energy independence.”
But the figure, which includes crude oil as well as products such as gasoline, doesn’t mean the U.S. is independent from foreign sources of oil.
The U.S. has become far less reliant on foreign crude in recent years, thanks to a fracking boom that has transformed the country into the world’s top oil producer, churning out more than 12 million barrels a day, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Still, America continues to import substantial volumes of foreign oil, primarily heavier varieties that refiners mix with domestic crude, which generally is lighter and less sulfurous. The fuel makers need a mix of light and heavy oils to operate at optimal capacity.
The U.S. was briefly a net exporter of oil and refined fuels last November, according to Energy Information Administration data, and it has achieved the distinction during several weeks since. Tuesday’s report was the first time in decades that trend has shown up in the monthly Commerce Department reports.
In the calculation of gross domestic product, imports are subtracted, so lower imports, arithmetically, will raise GDP. However, if imports fall because of weak domestic demand, the GDP boost is offset by lower business and consumer spending.
Overall, the U.S. trade deficit narrowed 4.7% in September from a month earlier to a seasonally adjusted $52.45 billion, the Commerce Department said. Through the first nine months of the year, the gap stood at $481.33 billion, up 5.4% from the same period of 2018.
U.S. Consumer Confidence Unexpectedly Drops, Hits Four-Month Low
U.S. consumer confidence unexpectedly fell in December to a four-month low amid surging Covid-19 cases that are spurring more states to tighten restrictions on businesses and travel.
The Conference Board index dropped to 88.6 from a downwardly revised 92.9 in November, according to a report from the group Tuesday. That missed all estimates in a Bloomberg survey of economists that had called for 97. The measure of sentiment about current conditions fell the most since April, while the expectations gauge rose from a four-year low.
The unexpectedly downbeat reading amid record virus cases and deaths comes just as new vaccines and federal-aid plans offer more reasons for optimism about the coming months. The latest reading, reflecting responses through Dec. 14, remains well below pre-pandemic levels.
“Consumers’ assessment of current conditions deteriorated sharply in December, as the resurgence of Covid-19 remains a drag on confidence,” Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at the Conference Board, said in the statement.
The report contrasts with another key measure of the country’s outlook. The University of Michigan’s gauge of U.S. consumer sentiment unexpectedly increased in early December to the second-highest level since March. However, the Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index has fallen for four straight weeks after rebounding since May.
The share of survey respondents who said they expected their incomes to increase edged up to 16.8 from 16, the board said.
On the labor market, the share of respondents saying jobs are plentiful declined for a second month. For expectations, the share saying that fewer jobs will be available in the next six months rose to a seven-year high of 22.2%.
U.S. Consumer Comfort Gauge Drops To Four-Month Low
A gauge of U.S. consumer sentiment dropped last week to a four-month low as Americans grew more pessimistic about the state of the national economy and the resurgence of Covid-19 cases.
The Bloomberg Consumer Comfort Index fell 2.4 points in the week that included Christmas to 44.6, the lowest since the period ended Aug. 23, data released Thursday showed. The sentiment measure is now only a third of the way back from its pre-pandemic level.
Americans’ assessments of the national economy, buying climate and their personal finances all worsened. The report comes against a backdrop of surging Covid-19 cases and renewed lockdown restrictions.
Americans’ pessimism about the economy and their financial situation continued as lawmakers dragged their feet on another fresh round of stimulus. A $900 billion pandemic-relief bill, passed by Congress on Dec. 21, wasn’t signed into law by President Donald Trump until Dec. 27.
Matching its low since early July, the sentiment index for the national economy fell by 3 points to 34, the third straight weekly decline. The gauge has fallen 6.5 points in the last two weeks, the most since April and reflecting pessimism among Republicans.
The measure of attitudes about personal finances fell to a four-month low of 58.8 from 61.2. Views of the buying climate also deteriorated last week.
Retail Sales, Manufacturing Slip Ahead of Expected Stimulus Checks
U.S. shoppers pulled back and factories produced less in February due to winter weather and supply-chain disruptions.
U.S. retailers and manufacturers slumped in February due to winter storms and supply-chain disruptions, but a broader economic rebound appears poised to accelerate this spring because of the easing pandemic and another round of government stimulus.
Retail sales—a measure of purchases at stores, at restaurants and online—fell by 3% in February compared with the prior month, the Commerce Department said Tuesday. The decline followed robust January sales that were propelled by stimulus payments to households from the December pandemic-relief package. January sales advanced a revised 7.6%, up from the earlier estimate of a 5.3% increase.
Severe winter weather wreaked havoc across a large swath of the U.S., affecting retail shopping and manufacturing output last month. The Federal Reserve separately said industrial production fell a seasonally adjusted 2.2% in February compared with January. Manufacturing, the largest component in the industrial-production index, drove the decline because of the weather disruptions and supply shortages in semiconductors for autos, the Fed said.
Consumers meanwhile spent less on autos, furniture, electronics, home improvement, healthcare and clothing. Sales at food and beverage stores were unchanged, while sales at gas stations were up strongly, by 3.6%, as gas prices have accelerated this year.
Despite the February decline, retail sales were up 6% over the last three months compared with the same period a year earlier, according to the Commerce Department.
February is typically a quiet month for retail sales, as stores gear up for the spring selling season, including Easter. Economists expect spending to accelerate in the coming months as additional government stimulus is distributed and Covid-19 vaccinations lead to a corresponding decline in cases and pickup in employment levels as businesses open up more fully.
The upwardly revised January sales figures “took the sting out of the negative surprise” in the February data, Aneta Markowska and Thomas Simons, economists at Jefferies LLC, said in a research note.
Federal stimulus checks, which many households will receive as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid plan signed into law last week, create “a massive tailwind for consumer demand this spring,” the economists said.
“The checks will coincide with broadening vaccine distribution and warmer weather, which will accelerate the return of high-contact activity, providing more avenues for consumers to spend their stimulus payments,” they added.
JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s tracker of credit- and debit-card transactions showed consumer spending on a seasonally adjusted basis climbed in early March after dropping off in February.
Other signals of a pickup in the economic recovery have emerged. After cutting workers at the end of 2020, U.S. employers added 379,000 jobs in February, and the unemployment rate ticked down to 6.2%. The U.S. manufacturing industry has shown steady signs of expansion.
Richard Woolley, owner at Weathered Vineyards in New Tripoli, Pa., said he was optimistic about the outlook for business as warmer months approach and federal stimulus efforts permeate the economy.
“You can’t pump trillions of dollars into the U.S. economy and not have some of it land here,” he said. “People will spend it. We’ll see some feedback from that at some point and that will probably lead to an OK 2021.”
He said February was a slow month for sales, with revenue at the winery during Valentine’s Day weekend down 50% compared with last year. Mr. Woolley said the business is currently relying on curbside pickups and outdoor service, because of state coronavirus mandates that restrict its ability to hold wine tastings indoors. Cold weather last month damped the number of customers willing to sit outside, he added.
As part of the federal government’s most recent relief package, many Americans will receive direct $1,400 cash payments. The package also extended enhanced unemployment benefits and expanded the child tax credit.
Meanwhile, new reported coronavirus cases in the U.S. are hovering near their lowest levels since early October, and President Biden has directed states to make all American adults eligible to sign up to receive a vaccine by May 1.
Those factors combined could help propel consumer spending on services, such as in the leisure-and-hospitality sector, where consumer outlays and employment gains have lagged behind.
“The bottom line is all about the pandemic. Once the pandemic is behind us, you’re likely to see a big rebound in consumer services,” said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James Financial. “People are likely to go nuts, we think, in terms of wanting to get out there and do stuff.”
U.S. households broadly are sitting on cash potentially ripe for spending, as they boosted savings during the pandemic. Research has suggested that Americans have spent previous rounds of direct cash payments on bills, food and other goods and to pay down debt, while also stashing away some of the funds.
‘Consumers have the ability to spend, willingness to spend.’
— Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation
Fiscal stimulus “is definitely adding purchasing power to households,” said Jack Kleinhenz, chief economist at the National Retail Federation. “The question is how much will actually be spent” in the coming months, he said.
Data firm IHS Markit on Tuesday lifted its forecast for first-quarter gross domestic product growth to 5.1% from 4.9%, citing the upward revisions to January’s retail sales data. Consumer spending is a key component of GDP, accounting for roughly two-thirds of economic output.
States and municipalities, meanwhile, have continued to relax restrictions on businesses and activity as cases have eased. Still, public health officials have warned of a potential resurgence in infections amid fatigue among Americans with precautions such as mask wearing and social distancing.
“Consumers have the ability to spend, willingness to spend, but on the downside, it’ll get contorted if the virus picks up again or variants put a speed bump in our ability to contain it,” Mr. Kleinhenz said.
Tom Scheiman, owner of b.a. Sweetie Candy Co. in Cleveland, said foot traffic and business at his candy store have picked up in recent months. The company has a 40,000-square-foot facility that is open to the public and it sells candy, old-fashioned sodas and ice cream.
The company is also a wholesale distributor of candy to local grocery and convenience stores. Mr. Scheiman said that portion of the business has too been on an upswing.
“You can tell by the way people are buying and the way they’re shopping, there’s no reluctance,” he said. Shoppers “have more money in their pocket,” he said, adding that the size of his customers’ average purchase had also increased.
The pandemic forced the retail store to close for 10 weeks around Easter last year, causing a loss of about $2 million in sales. This year, things look different.
“We’ve turned a corner substantially,” Mr. Scheiman said.
In turn, he said he had added three full-time employees to his staff and raised wages for his workers by an average of 12% since the start of the year.
Factory Production In U.S. Unexpectedly Declines
Production at U.S. manufacturers unexpectedly declined in February, representing a pause in recent momentum as factories were beset by severe winter weather and supply-chain challenges.
The 3.1% decrease in output was the first since April and followed an upwardly revised 1.2% gain in January, according to Federal Reserve data Tuesday. That was worse than all estimates in a Bloomberg survey of economists. The median forecast called for a 0.2% rise.
Excluding the effects of inclement weather, factory production would have fallen about 0.5% in February, the Fed said in a statement.
Total industrial production, which also includes mines and utilities, dropped 2.2% in February after an upwardly revised 1.1% increase a month earlier.
“We likely will see at least a partial reversal of the February changes in March given expected normalization in the weather and over time we believe industrial production will keep trending higher as the recovery continues,” Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co., said in a note.
Total industrial output reflected a 7.4% surge at utilities. That was the largest advance since March 2017 and driven by increased demand for heating. The bitter cold weather also resulted in blackouts in Texas and disrupted production at refineries.
While manufacturers continue to battle supply shortages and shipping challenges, tailwinds for producers include lean business inventories, steady demand from consumers and solid capital spending.
The Fed’s index of manufacturing output is 4% below where it was a year ago. The March data will offer a clearer read on the progress of American manufacturing, given other gauges of activity have largely been upbeat. The Institute for Supply Management’s measure rose last month to a three-year high.
Auto production slumped 8.3% in February, the largest fall since April and reflecting both a global shortage of semiconductors and the severe weather, reducing overall manufacturing output about 0.5%.
Production in the chemical industry dropped 7.1% last month, reflecting petrochemical plant shutdowns along the Gulf Coast.
A separate report Tuesday from the Commerce Department showed retail sales were also impacted by winter weather in February, falling 3% after a 7.6% gain in January.
* Manufacturing capacity utilization dropped 2.3 percentage points to 72.3%, the lowest since September. Total capacity utilization, including factories, mines and utilities, decreased to a four-month low of 73.8%
* Excluding motor vehicle and parts production, manufacturing output decreased 2.6%
* Oil and gas well drilling rose 6.4% but remains almost half of its pre-pandemic level
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