Market Insider

Consumers perked up in November, now will business?

Shoppers at Somerset Collection shopping mall in Troy, Mich.
Getty Images

With the consumer helping to punch up economic growth, durable goods Tuesday could give some guidance on business spending.

Stocks drifted higher Monday, setting new records on the S&P 500 and the Dow. The Dow rose 73 to 16,294, while the S&P 500 was up 9 at 1,827. Nasdaq rose 44 to 4,148, boosted by gains in Apple and Facebook.

Tuesday is a shortened trading day for Christmas Eve, with stocks closing at 1 p.m. ET and bond trading at 2 p.m. Durable goods, expected to rise 2 percent, are due at 8:30 a.m. ET, while new home sales are expected at 10 a.m.

"The [stock market] bias is to the upside now, but I don't expect there to be very much action at all," said Daniel Greenhaus, chief global strategist at BTIG. He said the market will be affected only if the numbers deviate widely from what's expected.

Art Cashin, UBS director of floor operations, said the market is poised for more gains into year-end. But Tuesday should be dull.

"I think you're going to have a limited audience, and people are going to try to leave early," he said, adding that the traditional NYSE floor singing of "Wait 'Til the Sun Shines Nellie" was moved up to 11:10 a.m.

(Read more: As the clock ticks, retail traffic continues slide)

Monday's report of November personal spending was one of the positives lifting stocks. The spending number, up 0.5 percent, was the best pace since June, and consumer sentiment was the highest in five months.

"In this latest month of November, consumers are spending quite a bit," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist with Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi. "There's been a huge change. Before Friday's GDP revision, we thought consumer spending was a dull 1.4 percent, and now it's 3.6 percent."

Third-quarter GDP was revised to 4.1 percent, about double the pace expected just a few weeks ago. Part of the latest revision was because of more spending by both consumers and business.

"I guess they are spending a lot ahead of the holiday season. Now we think services spending was not as weak as initially believed," he said, adding that Monday's spending data would put fourth- quarter growth at roughly 3.2 percent.

In a report Monday, Rupkey noted that spending on equipment was $930.4 billion in the third quarter, a 5.9 percent share of $15.8 trillion real GDP. That is dwarfed by the consumer's 67.8 percent contribution.

Within the durable goods report, nondefense capital goods orders excluding aircraft is the proxy for business capital spending, and it has declined since reaching record levels in June.

Rupkey said that business spending on equipment has been adding less to the economy this year, and through the third quarter was running at 1.7 percent, down from 4.5 percent in 2012.

But he said that is not worrisome for now.

Stick with what's working: Strategist

"On the one hand, business capital spending is not enough to push GDP faster than 3 percent currently, but 2 percent GDP growth will be fast enough if it continues to bring down unemployment," Rupkey wrote.

Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank, said durable goods will tell part of the story on capital spending, but he is looking to industrial production and trade data for a better read of its impact on economic growth.

"My guess is the core of the report, the core durables is going to be better than people think," he said. "Durable goods are one of the many pieces we use to estimate capital spending, but they're not the most important. … Even if for some reason they would be disappointing, that would still not change my expectation that the fourth quarter is doing well."

Consumers are being put to the test this week, with the holiday shopping season extending into the post-Christmas period Thursday and through next weekend.

ShopperTrak reported that retail sales at general merchandisers in the week Dec. 15 to 22 was down 3.1 percent from the same week last year. It also said retail brick-and-mortar shopper traffic dropped by 21.2 percent year over year.

"I think it's disappointing," said Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak. "I think it's that November has stolen a lot of business from December. November was up 3.4 percent, which was a little bit stronger than we had anticipated. ... The Black Friday and Thanksgiving Day sales took a lot of energy out of the consumer."

(Read more: Don't chase the laggards: JPMorgan strategist)

ComScore will release fresh data showing the results of online shopping Thursday. But Martin says he thinks the consumer slowed in December and that the decline in shopping at physical stores was not just the impact of online spending.

Rupkey said some of the consumer momentum could slow down in December.

"The way the data goes is it's red hot for a couple of months, and then it slows down. It almost doesn't bode well for December sales," he said.

ComScore said Wednesday that online sales in the week earlier eclipsed $1 billion for each of the five workdays for the first time. That helped boost total online spending by 21 percent so far this year, when comparing the days since Thanksgiving to the same period last year. It also said growth is coming from weekend spending, which has typically been slower for online retail.

But there's still time for shoppers to head out to the mall and other retail destinations, Martin said.

"We still have some days left to go. There could be some ground made up. Today was an important day, one of the top five days of the year," he said, adding that Dec. 26 is the seventh busiest.

Gift card sales are up, and those could be used in the weekend following Christmas, also potentially important days for this shopping season.

"We're still looking at 2.4 percent [gain] for the holiday season, even though we're seeing some softness in December," Martin said.

Retailers have been using a lot of promotions and discounting.

"We think they're doing everything they can to make sure their shelves are empty," Martin said. "There's a bit of the retailer blinking in this cat and mouse game, with the deeper discounts we've seen. And I suspect we're going to see more discounts rolling through next week, post-holiday."

Still, this should be the biggest holiday season ever, with an estimated $265 billion in sales. Last year was the largest year on record, eclipsing 2007.

"The stock market is setting records. Retail is setting records, but I think a lot of early promotions, a lot of strength in November is just weakening the whole December outlook," he said.

(Read more: Do US equities have room to rise?)

ShopperTrak also said that despite more markdowns and promotional efforts, "Super Saturday" (Dec. 21) sales were down by 0.7 percent from 2012.

In-store shopper traffic fell 18.1 percent from the same day last year.

—By CNBC's Patti Domm. Follow here on Twitter @pattidomm.