By  on March 30, 2009

Retail stocks lost some steam Friday, falling 1.5 percent, but the sector gained 9.5 percent during a week when some dared to hope that stores’ shares have neared or reached their bottom.

The S&P Retail Index fell 4.64 points to 296.88 Friday, turning in a better result than the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which dropped 1.9 percent, or 148.38 points, to 7,776.18.

With last week’s almost 10 percent rise, retail stocks are up 6.3 percent for this year. The Dow gained 6.8 percent last week, but is down 11.4 percent in 2009.

The stock market has been buoyed this month by some positive news, including a 22.2 percent rise in February housing starts and a Treasury Department plan to relieve banks of possibly $1 trillion in toxic assets through a public-private partnership. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been making his case for “better, smarter, tougher regulation” of the financial sector.

But there is little unanimity on when the economy and consumer spending will rebound.

This week, investors will get new readouts on several economic vital signs, including the Conference Board’s consumer confidence index on Tuesday and the Labor Department’s employment report on Friday.

Economists predict the U.S. unemployment rate will rise to 8.5 percent this month, as another 660,000 jobs are lost. Unemployment hit 8.1 percent in February, when 651,000 jobs were lost. It has been 14 months since the U.S. economy added any jobs.

Given that employment backdrop, along with the credit crunch and housing implosion, retailers have continued to struggle, upticks in their stock prices notwithstanding.

Shares of most fashion companies are down at least 40 percent from their 52-week highs and are, in many cases, seen as oversold. Given their lower relative value, day-to-day swings tend to look more dramatic.

Some of the steeper declines came from Christopher & Banks Corp., which fell 27.4 percent to $3.97 after the company said it would post losses for the fourth quarter; Saks Inc., which was down 6.8 percent to $1.93; American Apparel Inc., down 6.7 percent to $3.35, and Limited Brands Inc., down 5 percent to $9.12.

Shares of Dillard’s Inc. fell 5.1 percent to $6.30 after Moody’s Investors Service said the firm had a greater likelihood of default, changing the probability of default rating to “B3” from “B2.” Debt given a rating in the “B” range is considered to be speculative and subject to high credit risk.

Moody’s said the downgrade reflected the firm’s operating losses last year and the expectation that its performance will remain weak given the consumer spending environment. The rating agency also affirmed Dillard’s corporate family rating at “B2,” given the retailer’s unencumbered real estate assets, which could be used to help pay off debt in a stressed situation.

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