Stars Align This Holiday Shopping Season

by: Russ Koesterich, CFA

The holiday cheer did not last long. With Thanksgiving leftovers barely finished, sales reports came in suggesting a difficult start to the traditional U.S. holiday shopping season. The National Retail Federation's initial estimate of sales during the four-day weekend was $50.9 billion, down 11.3% from $57.4 billion in 2013. However, that report was quickly followed by a strong November retail sales print. Which one should investors believe? My view is that holiday sales are stronger than the initial report suggests and are likely to remain that way. Here are four reasons why I'd expect a good holiday shopping season.

Black Friday sales matter less than they used to. Pre-Thanksgiving promotions and lingering bargains have conditioned shoppers to pay less attention to 'door buster' promotions and Black Friday sales. As a percentage of overall holiday retail activity, Black Friday sales have been declining since 2012.

Gas prices are plunging. Wholesale gasoline prices have declined by over 40% since June, tracking the decline in crude oil prices. Spending at the pump now makes up less than 9% of the overall retail sales, which is the lowest percentage since April 2009. This translates into billions of dollars that can and likely will be spent elsewhere.

Wage growth is picking up, albeit from low levels. In November, hourly wages rose 0.4%, the largest monthly gain since June 2013. Not only are Americans earning more per hour, but they are also working more hours. Hours worked in November were 33.8, up nearly half an hour from February's level. While we have seen numerous wage spikes quickly dissipating in the past five years, the recent acceleration in job creation suggests wage growth should be modestly higher in 2015.

Americans are wealthier. Thanks to a rebounding housing market and booming stock market, U.S. household net worth is at an all-time high, up by more than 30% since the third quarter of 2011. Although it is unfortunate that many Americans are sitting out the stock market rally or are still underwater on their home equity, the more affluent segment is likely to spend more due to the wealth effect.

While I have been and continue to be cautious on consumer-related sectors over the long term, for this holiday season the stars are aligning in a very positive way. A stronger labor market, some wage growth and higher wealth are translating into higher confidence. The University of Michigan Consumer Sentiment Index is now at 93.8, up from 80 in March and at the highest level since January 2007. Back in late October, we upgraded our view of consumer discretionary companies from underweight to neutral. At least for the 2014 holiday season, the U.S. consumer is likely to recoup a bit of their old swagger.

Source: Bloomberg.

Disclaimer: This material represents an assessment of the market environment at a specific time and is not intended to be a forecast of future events or a guarantee of future results. This information should not be relied upon by the reader as research or investment advice regarding the funds or any security in particular.

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