As the traditional peak season of the year for consumer spending approaches, Wall Street is decidedly un-bullish on retailing.
The stocks of most of the nation's major store operators have fallen sharply since midsummer, posting losses as big as or bigger than the decline in the market as a whole.Even as the early flood-tide of Christmas catalogs has reached the nation's mailboxes, the retailing business is confronted with recession fears, soaring oil prices and surveys showing little enthusiasm among the nation's shoppers.
"Falling consumer confidence presents a troubling outlook for fourth-quarter consumer spending," said Anthony Vignola at the investment firm of Kidder, Peabody & Co.
"This trend could be particularly damaging to the important Christmas selling season and the demand by retailers for seasonal supplies."
The primary catalyst for the sell-off in retailing stocks, of course, was Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait and the upsurge in oil prices that followed.
Analysts saw the increase in energy costs as the functional equivalent of a tax increase, crimping consumers' disposable income. Regular surveys by economists designed to measure consumer confidence seem to bear out that view.
Some observers point out that the outlook for retailers was already worsening appreciably before the crisis in the Persian Gulf.
"The latest numbers simply extend the downward trend in year-over-year sales gains that has been under way since early in 1989," said David Resler, chief economist at Nomura Securities International in New York.
"Aggregate demand appeared to be on a progressively slowing path even before the Mideast crisis. Now heightened consumer anxiety, reflected in polls showing a majority of respondents expects recession, threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
All this helps explain why the stock of Sears Roebuck, a prominent general merchandise retailer, traded last week around $27, down from $48 in 1989.
The Limited, a widely followed specialty retailer, slipped below $15, against $25.62 just a few months earlier, adjusted for splits.
Even Wal-Mart Stores, revered on Wall Street as one of the nation's great growth companies, has traded of late at around $26.50, down more than 25 percent from its recent rec-ord high of $36.75, again adjusted for splits.
At these "discount" prices, some bargain-minded investors are naturally scrutinizing retail stocks. But many analysts still take a wary view of the group.
"We don't believe the retail environment will improve until the second half of 1991," wrote Barry Bryant, who follows the industry for Prudential-Bache Securities.