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Economic uncertainty has prompted some retailers to put plans on hold, Yellen says

Key Points
  • Retailers are increasingly cautious heading into 2019, with fears of cooling global growth and a market sell-off top of mind, Janet Yellen says at the National Retail Federation's Big Show event in New York.
  • She says there could be "disruption" in retail if the partial government shutdown continues and doesn't end "quickly."
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen speaks during a news conference December 13, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Getty Images

Retailers are increasingly cautious heading into 2019, with fears of cooling global growth and a market sell-off top of mind, Janet Yellen, former chair of the Federal Reserve, said Monday, during the National Retail Federation's annual Big Show in New York.

"We are hearing anecdotal reports about businesses beginning to put investment plans on hold because of [economic] uncertainty," she told CNBC's Steve Liesman, who was moderating a panel session. Yellen said those investments in consideration could include things like upgrades to a retailer's supply chain.

"The trade tensions, I think, really concern businesses ... in terms of what the future holds in store," Yellen added.

Her comments came on the heels of a handful of major retailers including Macy's and Kohl's reporting somewhat disappointing holiday sales last week. Macy's stock had its worst day ever last Thursday, falling nearly 18 percent, when CEO Jeff Gennette said traffic at Macy's stores and online "weakened" in mid-December and didn't bounce back until close to Christmas. Analysts and investors had been expecting retailers to come out with more upbeat holiday sales, considering how strong consumer confidence has been in the U.S.

Now, headed into 2019, the fear is any momentum retailers had in 2018 is starting to fade. The driving narrative for much of 2018 was that with unemployment at record lows, consumers were more willing to open up their wallets and shop. Companies ranging from luxury brands to discount retailers reaped the benefits of that.

But now, the U.S. government has now been partially shut down for 24 days, the longest in history. President Donald Trump also launched a high-stakes trade war against China last year, keeping many retailers on their toes, as they don't know what additional tariffs could be implemented next, if any.

"I think if [the government shutdown] continues, it could impact consumer psychology and consumer sentiment," Yellen said Monday. But, she added, she doesn't think there will be "disruption" so long as it ends "quickly."

Also speaking at the NRF's Big Show on Sunday, Kroger CEO Rodney McMullen told CNBC's Sara Eisen, "From a customer standpoint ... they feel incredibly good about the economy, but very nervous about where are things headed."

"So, if you talk about things in the present, incredibly complimentary and excited," McMullen said. "If you change the question a little bit in terms of, 'Where do you think things are going?' ... a lot more uncertainty."

Still, according to Yellen, "the fundamentals underlying consumer spending look excellent." She said, "All the hard data we have on economic activity suggests things are in good shape."