Retail stocks are up 50.5 percent since their lows in March, but investors uncertain about when an actual recovery will set in seem unable to push shares higher with any lasting conviction.

This story first appeared in the June 9, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The S&P Retail Index inched up 0.6 percent, or 1.91 points Monday, to 336.03. The gain came after a 4.8 percent rise last week. Despite the increases, retail stocks are still down 1 percent from the end of April.

Looking at the rest of the year, Robert Drbul, broadline analyst at Barclays Capital, suggested that investors stick with market leaders with strong balance sheets, management depth and a chance to come out of the recession stronger than when they entered. His top picks include Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Tiffany & Co., Kohl’s Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc.

Shares of Wal-Mart fell 0.5 percent to $50.81 Monday; Target rose 1.2 percent to $40.98; Tiffany dipped 0.4 percent to $29.63; Kohl’s increased 0.6 percent to $46.25, and J.C. Penney saw little change, falling 4 cents to $29.05.

Even for retailers working from a solid base, the second half will not be an easy one. Drbul pointed to a range of challenges in an outlook for the second half. They include increasing gas prices and unemployment, the risks of higher interest rates and tight terms for consumer credit.

“Credit card spending limits are being lowered and managed very aggressively by numerous companies,” Drbul said. “We expect the tough environment to continue into the second half of 2009 and are optimistic that a recovery could begin to occur in [the fourth quarter] and early 2010.”

In Asia, shares of Li & Fung Ltd. gave up some of last week’s 20.8 percent rally and slid 5.2 percent to 23.70 Hong Kong dollars, or $3.06. The stock was buoyed by comments from UBS analyst Spencer Leung, who said the sourcing giant could benefit if U.S. consumers start to trade down to lower-priced goods.