By  on September 17, 2009

Retail stocks marched ahead 2.3 percent Wednesday, hitting another new high for the year as investors caught a glimmer of better times ahead, even if economists say they’re still relatively far off.

The S&P Retail Index rose as high as 382.39 Wednesday — a level not seen since last September — but settled for an 8.69-point rise to 382.32. After three consecutive advances last week, the index has alternated between down and up days for the last four sessions. Still, it is up more than 150 points and 67.1 percent from its 2009 nadir on March 6.

All major U.S. indices rose Wednesday, but none more than the retail sector. The Dow Jones Industrial Average increased 108.30 points, or 1.1 percent, to 9,791.71 while the S&P 500 picked up 16.13 points, or 1.5 percent, to 1,068.76. Overseas, the Hang Seng Index in Hong Kong advanced 2.6 percent and the FTSE 100 in London and the CAC 40 in Paris each rose 1.6 percent.

Giving credence to the notion the economy is at least pointed in the right direction, the Federal Reserve said U.S. industrial production rose 0.8 percent in August from July, though it is still down 10.7 percent from a year ago. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said Tuesday the recession is “very likely” over, but the job market would make it feel like a weak economy for some time.

Rajeev Dhawan, director of the Economic Forecasting Center at Georgia State University, said the industrial production number along with other recent indications of economic strength were “welcomed blips,” but that things wouldn’t really begin to turn until businesses start investing in technology and hiring picks back up.

“This is still the Nike swoosh economy,” said Dhawan, referring to a chart of economic growth that resembles the brand’s logo. “It’s still a slow climb.”

Even with tighter inventories, he said retailers are going to have appeal to shoppers’ pocketbook concerns this holiday season.

“If you don’t put up a nice discount sign, you’re not going to be able to sell it,” Dhawan said. “You have to make the consumer feel as if he or she is getting a great bargain.”

Among the retail gainers Wednesday were AnnTaylor Stores Corp., up 5.1 percent to $17.24; Abercrombie & Fitch Co., 4.8 percent to $33; Dillard’s Inc., 4.7 percent to $14.22; Saks Inc., 4.1 percent to $7.20; Nordstrom Inc., 3.3 percent to $31.45; Guess Inc., 3.2 percent to $37.10; Hot Topic Inc., 3.2 percent to $7.16, and Zale Corp., 3.1 percent to $7.99.

The vendors gaining steam included Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., ahead 6.9 percent to $74.43; Liz Claiborne Inc., 5.7 percent to $6.27; Nike Inc., 4.6 percent to $57.18, and Jones Apparel Group Inc., 3.4 percent to $18.82.

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