Macy's becomes the canary in the retail coalmine

Macy's flagship store in Herald Square, New York City.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Macy's flagship store in Herald Square, New York City.

Just imagine running a retail business right now. There's a decent amount of good news on the economic front—particularly on jobs—but a number of companies are still not getting much traction.

Macys second quarter earnings miss is a good example of this. Comparable store sales were up 3.4 percent, about in-line with expectations. Same-store sales for the year are now projected up 1.5 to 2.0 percent, below previous guidance of 2.5 to 3.0 percent.

Macy's has only missed expectations one quarter in the last 28 (7 years), according to RetailMetrics. That's quite a string! With today's miss, they have now missed twice in the last five quarters.

What's the problem? First, there are not a lot of fashion items that are really exciting to buyers. Second, they are spending on other things, like electronics, data plans, and cars. More importantly, in a relatively tame recovery people still don't have much discretionary spending, particularly for (pricey) specialty apparel. As if to set the stage for Macy's, July retail sales disappointed, auto sales were soft for the second straight month, and furniture and electronic sales were also weak.

Most consumers "still are not feeling comfortable about spending more in an uncertain economic environment," CEO Terry Lungren said.

This does not bode well for the other retailers, since Macys is considered best-in-class for its sector. Investors will get Wal-Mart, JCPenney and Kohl's on Thursday before the open.


1) The burst of trading that started on Thursday and continued into Friday died out on Tuesday; it looks stagnant again.

There are sectors moving, however, Brent crude was a big story yesterday, its weakness (at its lowest in a year) has been weighing on oil stocks. That trend continues today. Supply has been strong: OPEC output is at a five-month high and there's been little disruption due to Ukraine or Middle East concerns. Elsewhere, demand in countries like China has been lower.

Gold is up again today as rates remain low and there are still sufficient geopolitical tensions to keep traders on edge. Technicians are crowing because gold has completed a "Golden Cross," where the 50 day moving average has moved over the 200 day moving average on the upside. Gold miners have also been in an uptrend for the past few days.

As expected, Japan reported a big 6.8 percent decline in second quarter, an effect of the new national sales tax. The prime minister said he saw no need currently for additional economic measures, although the government would respond if necessary.

Market reaction was muted, however, perhaps because traders were expecting a decline even greater than the 7 percent decline forecast.

--By CNBC's Bob Pisani

  • Bob Pisani

    A CNBC reporter since 1990, Bob Pisani covers Wall Street from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

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