Consumers are spending, but Wall Street and businesses expect a tighter squeeze ahead

NEW YORK (AP) — Investors and a wide range of retailers are taking a dim view of the remainder of 2023 and expect consumers to buckle under pressure from inflation.

Macy’s, Target and Dollar General are warning investors about weaker sales through the rest of the year as consumers shift their spending to essentials. Investors themselves have sold off shares of key retailers, with stock prices for many companies down substantially in a year when the broader market is making solid gains.

The concerns are growing despite resilient retail sales reports from the government. The latest update for May showed surprising growth despite pressure from still-high inflation and rising borrowing costs. The Commerce Department reported that retail sales rose 0.3% in May, surprising analysts who expected a slight dip.

The gains in May, though, came mostly from auto and parts dealers. Sales at electronics and furniture stores showed only modest gains, while sales were unchanged at clothing retailers.

Overall, consumers have been more cautious and that will become more visible in sales results throughout the rest of 2023 and into 2024, said Lydia Boussour, senior economist at EY, the global organization behind Ernst & Young.

“We expect the slowdown in consumer spending to accelerate in the second half of the year as labor market gains falter, the buffer from excess savings shrinks and credit conditions tighten further,” she said.

Companies that make consumer products, essentials and clothing have all been warning about a tough road ahead. Newell Brands, maker of Rubbermaid containers and Mr. Coffee coffee makers, expects continued sales pressure for at least another 12 months.

“We continue to expect a challenging macroeconomic environment characterized by high to moderate inflation which will likely continue to constrain consumer discretionary spending,” said Mark J. Erceg, chief financial officer at Newell Brands, during a conference in June.

Earlier in June, Macy’s slashed its forecast for the year after sales weakened in the first quarter. In May, Home Depot cut its profit and sales outlook for the year.

Even companies making essential products that are seemingly recession proof are growing worried.

“We tend to fare well during these times, but it’s something we’re watching very carefully,” Clorox CEO Linda Rendle said recently.

The monthly retail sales report from the government offers only a partial look at consumer spending. It excludes many services, including healthcare, travel and hotel lodging. Investors are more confident in sales prospects for many of those companies, judging by stock performances so far this year. United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines are all up about 30% or more for the year, as is Booking Holdings Inc.

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