Target CEO sounds less exuberant about US consumer now compared to last year

  • Target's Brian Cornell isn't turning negative. "It's still a very stable consumer environment," he says. "It's going to ebb and flow."
  • Cornell's comments came shortly after Target delivered better-than-expected quarterly results and a rosier full-year outlook.

Target chief Brian Cornell tempered his statements about the strength of American shoppers on Tuesday, months after making a bold call that the consumer environment was "perhaps the strongest I've seen in my career."

"It's still a very stable consumer environment. Consumers are shopping. You're seeing strong consumer confidence, still," Cornell told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Tuesday.

"Certainly, we're going to watch it carefully," Cornell added, referring to consumer buying trends. "It's going to ebb and flow. But right now, I think we're seeing a very consistent consumer environment."

Cornell, who became chairman and CEO of Target in 2014 after more than three decades at other retail and consumer products companies, was interviewed shortly after Target delivered better-than-expected fourth-quarter earnings, revenue and same-store sales growth, as well as a rosier full-year outlook.

Based on shares rising 5 percent on Tuesday, Target was up about 27 percent since its Christmas Eve low, including 15.7 percent in 2019. That compares with the S&P 500's nearly 19 percent gain since Christmas Eve, with 11.4 percent of that advance coming this year.

In August, when stocks and consumer confidence were climbing, Cornell told analysts, "There's no doubt that, like others, we're currently benefiting from a very strong consumer environment — perhaps the strongest I've seen in my career."

Then in late October, Cornell stood by those remarks, telling CNBC he saw no change in how Americans feel about their finances, despite sharp declines in the stock market at the time and evidence that some pockets of the economy may be slowing.

During the October interview, he also acknowledged the need to look at 2019 and beyond due to "some concerns about overall global trends," but said then that consumer sentiment remained "very high."

But consumer confidence, as measured by the Conference Board research firm, declined in November and December as stocks tanked in the final three months of 2018. Consumer confidence fell again in January as Americans dealt with uncertainty around the partial government shutdown, which turned out to be the longest ever. However, in February, with the shutdown over and stocks sharply rebounding in the opening two months of 2019, consumer confidence bounced higher.

Throughout the market and consumer confidence slides in late 2018 and rebounds in early 2019, the labor market remained relatively strong. The government releases its latest employment report Friday, with economists expecting 180,000 nonfarm jobs to have been added in February and the unemployment rate dipping to 3.9 percent. The three month nonfarm jobs growth average — January, December and November — with revisions was 241,000.

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