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U.S. companies say consumer still strong even as broader outlook dims

Caroline Valetkevitch

NEW YORK, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Walmart became the latest company to point to a strong U.S. consumer, adding to a raft of firms in recent weeks citing healthy demand at a time when spending is seen as an increasingly key support for the economy.

Several companies including banks and homebuilders have painted an upbeat picture of consumer health in conference calls this reporting season, even as many firms have offered more dour outlooks especially given the lingering U.S.-China trade war.

Reports of strong demand from companies are a welcome sign to some in the market amid weakening manufacturing activity and a slump in business investment.

Data showed U.S. economic growth slowed less than expected in the third quarter as resilient consumer spending offset a further contraction in business investment, and many strategists remain confident in consumers' ability to support the economy.

"I'm in that camp. We are now in this job market where the consumer has the advantage versus employers," said Lindsey Bell, chief investment strategist at Ally Invest in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Lower interest rates, which mean reduced borrowing costs, are giving people more money to spend, and that's likely to be the case for the first half of next year as well, she said.

On Thursday, Walmart Inc raised its annual outlook and its chief financial officer, Brett Biggs, told Reuters spending going into the crucial holiday season remained healthy.

Focus on spending at retailers will remain high next week, when a wide range of retailers report results, wrapping up the reporting period. They include Target Corp, Home Depot Inc, Gap Inc and Macy's Inc.

Homebuilder Lennar Corp, MasterCard and Tapestry were among companies alluding to healthy consumer spending during the current reporting period.

In JPMorgan Chase's Oct. 15 earnings call, Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Piepszak said uncertainty related to trade may be impacting some investing but the U.S. consumer is "incredibly strong."

"Sentiment is strong for the consumer, credit is good," she said.

The number of companies mentioning a strong consumer in the third-quarter season is roughly in line with the number in the second-quarter reporting period.

To be sure though, business investment has been easing, and plenty of companies have given a more cautious view of the outlook. Among them, Cisco Systems Inc late on Wednesday forecast revenue and profit below expectations and said increasing global economic uncertainties were weighing on client spending.

Also, analysts have been cutting earnings forecasts for the fourth quarter and 2020, while third-quarter earnings for S&P 500 are on track to fall slightly from a year ago, which would be the first quarterly profit decline for the group since 2016, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

Banking on the consumer is a risk at this point, said Richard Bernstein, chief executive of Richard Bernstein Advisors LLC in New York.

"If we get a profits recession, you're going to see the employment situation start to change," said Bernstein, who spoke at the Reuters Global Investment Outlook 2020 Summit in New York last week.

Investors will seek further clues from reports on spending trends ahead of the holiday shopping period, when many retailers get a big part of their annual sales.

A report Friday on U.S. retail sales for October could be among them. (Reporting by Caroline Valetkevitch; Editing by Alden Bentley and Tom Brown)