Fashion and retail have become the wallflowers of the Wall Street dance, lingering on the sidelines as the Dow Jones Industrial Average soared and closed above 20,000 for the first time.
It is easy to see why — life is complex in retail right now and is expected to remain that way. President Donald Trump is promising to both give and take, lowering corporate tax rates, while raising the cost to bring in goods from overseas. And traffic is down sharply at stores as shoppers turn to their smartphones and seek experiences instead of stuff, hitting retail profit margins hard. Establishment brands are looking for a way forward as the shoppers look past them, as they did this past holiday season.
“The key issue we see is that if 2016 holiday couldn’t bring us some good numbers — inventory was lean, weather was more favorable and [comparisons against a year earlier] were easy — then what will?” said Ike Boruchow, senior analyst at Wells Fargo.
There is not an adequate answer. And if investors can’t figure it out, they’ll choose to put their money elsewhere, where growth is more assured. (Think the ever-more fashion-orientated Amazon, tech generally, or any number of other sectors not dependent on the give-and-take of the fashion cycle and the fickleness of consumers).
All together, that makes the space “uninvestable” in the near term, he said, noting only a few names garner investor interest, including Lululemon Athletica Inc., The TJX Cos. Inc., Burlington Stores Inc. and Ulta Salon, Cosmetics & Fragrance Inc.
Lululemon is bouncing back in the active-healthy living space, Ulta is a major retail player in the hot beauty space and the other two are off-pricers. All are closer to their 52-week highs than lows, with Lululemon stock being the weakest by that measure, off 16 percent off its peak.
Most are at the other side of the spectrum.
The story of who’s getting the investment interest in retail is told in the firms’ market capitalizations. Amazon.com Inc. has a market cap of $397 billion — more than Wal-Mart ($206 billion), Nike Inc. ($89 billion), Ross Stores Inc. ($26 billion), Dollar General Corp. ($20 billion) and L Brands Inc. ($18 billion) combined.
This weakness is coming at a time when the newly installed President Trump is speaking a language Wall Street understands — spending.
Word, via Twitter of course, that Trump would be carrying through with his promised wall along the Mexican border spurred hopes of lots of economic activity, and pushed the Dow through the psychologically important barrier of 20,000.
Blue chip stocks ended up 0.8 percent, or 155.80 points, to 20,068.51.
Stock investors have largely supported Trump since his surprise win, pushing up the market on the back of his promises to cut the corporate taxes and make other changes that would help the economy.
But many of his stances could also prove to be disruptive (his leadership has already been met with very strong popular resistance). Building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico — a promise Trump built his divisive campaign on — would cost billions. And withdrawing the nation from the global stage with an “America First” motto could drastically change the economy in unseen ways, for better or worse.
Retail and fashion, and everyone else, is left to wait and see.