Traders look to retailers to move markets to new highs

With the S&P 500 only a point or two from another historic closing high, the question has been, "What would decisively bring us into new high territory?"

It's not that no one believes we can do it. Over the weekend, two market watchers reiterated their basically optimistic view of stocks. Dan Greenhaus at BTIG said the bias for stocks remains to the upside, while Jeff Saut at Raymond James went even further, saying an upside breakout is coming.

Short-term, a lot may depend on what retailers are saying, because they begin reporting this week. Macy's and JC Penney report on Wednesday, followed by Nordstrom and Kohl's on Thursday and Gap next week.

With the exception of Macy's, retailers have been big laggards this quarter:

Q1 retail stock performance (as of Friday's close)

  • Gap: down 8.9 percent
  • Nordstrom: down 3.8 percent
  • Kohl's: down 5.1 percent
  • Macy's: up 1.6 percent

No one is expecting too much, since what guidance that has been provided has been very cautious.

We also get April retail sales this week. The hope is that the pickup that began in March will continue into April, but it was an ugly winter:

Retail sales

  • April (est.): up 0.2 percent
  • March: up 0.9 percent
  • February: down 0.6 percent
  • January: down 0.8 percent
  • December: down 0.9 percent

The bottom line: Consumers seem to be spending money on cars, student loans, electronics and dining—but not on retail in general.

The hope among bulls is that because retailers have been such laggards, any positive indications from them about a pickup in April sales will pop the stocks. (Remember, their quarter ends in April, not March.)

  • 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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