Retail stocks contracted 2.3 percent in morning trading Wednesday as the escalating tensions in Libya drove up oil prices and, with them, concerns about the effects of more expensive gas on the uncertain economic recovery.


At noon, the S&P Retail Index had declined 11.96 points to 503.71, with its percentage decline well in excess of the Dow Jones Industrial Average’s 0.7 percent dip to 12,123.03 and even the Nasdaq Composite’s 1.5 percent falloff to 2,714.65.


With turmoil in Libya continuing, oil futures continued their upward climb. West Texas intermediate peaked Wednesday morning at $99.10 a barrel, elevating fears about the effect of $4-a-gallon gasoline and its impact on discretionary spending.


Specialty stores bore the brunt of the morning sell-off, with shares of American Apparel Inc. down 7 cents, or 6.3 percent, to $1.05 following revisions in its loan agreement with Lion Capital late Tuesday. Other decliners included Rue 21 Inc., down 4.7 percent to $32.75; The Buckle Inc., 4.1 percent to $37.26; Tiffany & Co., 3.9 percent to $60.25; Zumiez Inc., 3.9 percent to $24, and Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc., 3.8 percent to $45.60.


Anxiety about North Africa didn’t stop a number of companies which reported improved quarterly results Wednesday from reaping benefits. Shares of Zale Corp. gained 9.2 percent to $4.65 after it reported that its second-quarter earnings more than quadrupled, and Chico’s FAS Inc. saw its shares gain 6.1 percent to $12.79 on the 18.2 percent improvement in its fourth-quarter net income.


However, Saks Inc. shares drifted 1.8 percent lower, to $11.95, following its return to fourth-quarter profitability, while The TJX Cos. Inc.’s shares were down 2.9 percent to $48.26 in the aftermath of its disclosure of a 15.3 percent decline in quarterly profit, much of it attributable to the closure of its A.J. Wright division.

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