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Wall Street surges on retail sales

A record number of shoppers pour into malls as the holiday buying season begins.

November 29, 2011|Walter Hamilton and Shan Li

The strong start to the holiday shopping season and new proposals to help ease Europe's debt crisis finally injected some confidence into a recession-wary Wall Street.

Investors were encouraged with reports that a record number of shoppers poured into malls and shopping centers around the country over Thanksgiving weekend, which has historically been the biggest time of the year for U.S. retailers.

Sales during Black Friday are crucial for Wall Street since consumer spending accounts for 70% of the economy, and sales figures helped assuage fears building since summer that the U.S. could be close to falling back into a recession.

Retail stocks helped power a big rebound for the market Monday, with the broad Standard & Poor's 500 index snapping a seven-day losing streak by rising 33.88 points, or 2.9%, to 1,192.55 points. The S&P retail index, made up of 30 components including Tiffany & Co. and Sears Holdings Corp., jumped 3.1% during the session. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 291.23 points, or 2.6%, to 11,523.01 points, bouncing back from a nearly 1,000-point drubbing this month.

The question remains whether the momentum can continue as the holiday shopping season goes on -- especially with key economic snapshots due out this week that include readings on consumer confidence and jobless claims.

"Extrapolating the entire holiday season from one day of incentive-induced sales can be very misleading, especially when the pace of spending appears completely out of line with the fundamentals of household employment, income and confidence," said Steven Ricchiuto, an analyst with Mizuho Securities.

Shoppers shelled out $52.4 billion from Thanksgiving Day through Sunday, a 16.4% surge from $45 billion last year, according to the National Retail Federation. Each shopper on average spent $398.62, a 9.1% bump from last year.

Retail stocks rose. Nordstrom jumped $1.13, or 2.6%, to $45.19; Tiffany surged $4.12, or 5.9%, to $73.62; and Coach rocketed $3.88, or 6.7%, to $62.13. Target rose 42 cents, or 0.8%, to $51.63.

The shopping frenzy appeared to continue beyond the weekend with encouraging initial sales figures for so-called Cyber Monday, traditionally the opening bell for online spending during the holidays. Online sales on Cyber Monday as of 6 p.m. were up 18% over the same period last year, according to an IBM report.

The Cyber Monday data helped push the technology-heavy Nasdaq composite index up 85.83 points, or 3.5%, to 2527.34, after its 5.1% slump last week.

Although Black Friday was the biggest on record, analysts cautioned that it was too soon to tell whether the momentum would carry through to the rest of the holiday season, a make-or-break period for many retailers, who often generate 25% to 40% of their annual sales during the last two months of the year.

"If retailers offered incredible deals, consumers were willing to buy," said Britt Beemer of consumer behavior firm America's Research Group. "A lot of consumers haven't bought anything for themselves for the last three or four Christmases."

Beemer said his firm's research showed that 12.6% of those surveyed had finished all their holiday shopping on Black Friday, up from 8.3% of shoppers last year.

"That tells you the economic straits of the American consumer," he said. "If they can get that laptop or TV for Christmas on Black Friday, that will be it for them."

Beyond just the U.S. economy, investors are also seeing some encouraging signs in Europe. Global markets got a boost from reports that Germany and France are drawing up plans that would commit European Union members to greater fiscal unity. That raised hope that European lawmakers may address a key underlying cause of the continent's financial problems: the absence of a workable mechanism forcing countries in the 17-nation Eurozone to exercise strict budgetary discipline.

Wall Street took heart as European markets rebounded after diving last week. The stock market was helped by government bond yields easing in most Eurozone countries. Share prices surged throughout Europe, with Germany's benchmark stock index jumping 4.6% and France's leaping 5.5%.

"Overall, there appears to be a sense of greater urgency among Eurozone leaders after some very worrisome developments last week," said Kathy Lien, director of currency research at GFT in Jersey City, N.J.

That gives policymakers some breathing room as they try to contain the spreading debt crisis. Eurozone finance ministers meet Tuesday and European Union finance ministers meet Wednesday.

Still, stocks have repeatedly surged in recent months on reports of progress in Europe, only to falter again when investors studied the details and concluded that there was no immediate solution to the debt overhang in many countries.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on Monday called for "urgent action" to stop the European debt crisis, warning that it is the key risk to the world economy.

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