Retail

Recession threat has retailers thinking twice about big decisions

Key Points
  • There's a 50 percent chance, at least, the U.S. heads into a recession in 2019, KPMG principal and chief economist Constance Hunter says.
  • Hunter's comments echo those of former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, who says she has anecdotal evidence that businesses are starting to hold off on investment plans because of economic uncertainty.
  • Analysts and economists during the National Retail Federation's Big Show are talking about what the government shutdown means for the industry.
Customer shops inside a BJ's Wholesale Club store in Falls Church, Virginia.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

What does the U.S. economy have in store for retailers in 2019?

For many, it looks to be a waiting game.

Businesses are waiting for economic data and holiday-quarter earnings to come out before they make decisions on how much and where to invest. They're waiting to see if the economy is slipping into a recession. Waiting to see if global trade tensions rise or ease. And waiting to see if consumers pull back on discretionary spending should their tax refunds shrink. And while these companies wait, some are seemingly holding off on big investments.

There's a 50 percent chance, at least, the U.S. heads into a recession in 2019, KPMG principal and chief economist Constance Hunter said during a panel with members of the media during the National Retail Federation's Big Show in New York on Monday.

It's going to be "very hard for businesses to keep expanding," she added, saying retailers are increasingly having a harder time finding labor. And that's just one of their challenges today.

Hunter's comments echoed those of Janet Yellen, who said Monday morning at the Big Show that she has anecdotal evidence that businesses are starting to hold off on investment plans because of economic uncertainty. That could mean a retailer is waiting to upgrade its logistics, for example.

On the heels of Macy's coming out with disappointing holiday sales last week ahead of its fourth-quarter earnings report, Hunter also said she expects this upcoming earnings season "will come in more surprising to the downside" than analysts have been predicting.

Nonetheless, it might take a while for analysts and companies alike to know exactly how the industry has been performing − for better or for worse − over the past few weeks, which includes the all-important holiday shopping season.

The government's report on December retail sales was expected to come out on Wednesday and will now be delayed because of the federal government shutdown, which is now the longest in history.

NRF chief economist Jack Kleinhenz said it normally takes 15 to 18 days then, after the shutdown has ended, to get retail sales data. That's going to delay organizations like NRF in making their own sales predictions. "Businesses are just waiting to see," he said.

The National Retail Federation had been predicting retail sales would be up at least 4.5 percent in 2018, and between 4.3 and 4.8 percent during the holiday season.

Meanwhile, some retailers at NRF are still showing confidence in their ability to perform, even in the midst of so much uncertainty.

Target CEO Brian Cornell had said last year, ahead of the holiday season, that the consumer environment was the strongest he'd seen in his career. He didn't move much from that messaging on Monday morning.

"I think we can all agree, 2018 was a really good year for retail," Cornell said during a panel session at NRF's Big Show. "Consumer confidence is still quite high. ... The average consumer, they are looking at gas prices that have continued to decline."

"Will that continue forever? Probably not," he cautioned.

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