Why America is having a rich man's recovery
Stores that cater to America's well-to-do see sales rise while those aimed at the middle class and lower struggle. Here's what that means to the U.S. economy and investors.
A rising tide is supposed to lift all boats.
In the Obama recovery, however, the high-end yachts are doing much better than the dinghies.
Recent shopping trends show that the wealthy are living it up again -- spending on expensive jewelry, luxury handbags, designer clothing and other high-end pleasures. But the recovery has done little to boost the spending of the average wage earners shopping at places such as Target (TGT.N).
The reasons for this dichotomy are fairly straightforward, reflecting overall trends in the economy:
* On the one hand, the U.S. is still out the 8 million jobs that vanished during the recession. One in six people is out of work, and many who have jobs are worried about losing them. Though job losses have hit every level, the wealthy have bigger cushions to fall back on.
* On the other hand, the stock market has rebounded sharply; it's up about 70% from the lows of a year ago. Driven by this, household net worth advanced $5.7 trillion from last March to $54.2 trillion at the end of last year. The benefits tilt strongly toward the wealthy, who have proportionally more of their money, and simply more money, invested.
America's cash registers show the impact of this as well as anything. Wealthier Americans feel confident enough that they've started shopping again, boosting sales at higher-end retailers such as Tiffany (TIF.N), Nordstrom (JWN.N) and Coach (COH.N).
Here's something else that helps the wealthy: Though hiring is scarce, executive bonuses are flowing, and they are definitely back on Wall Street after falling sharply in 2008. And sales at Tiffany's flagship store in New York City shot up 20% over the past holiday season.
Working middle-class families, meanwhile, remain antsy about spending. And sales at the places they generally shop, like J.C. Penney (JCP.N), Target, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT.N) and Macy's (M.N), continue to languish.
The bottom line: Although U.S. President Barack Obama's $800 billion stimulus package, along with the bank and auto-sector bailouts, were meant to lift the U.S. economy as a whole, the effects so far have been felt mostly by the wealthy. Obama is presiding over a rich man's economic rebound.
"There's definitely a recovery in the upper end -- you bet," says George Whalin, with Retail Management Consultants. "The affluent consumer is really more confident that the worst is over. The lower end is really suffering badly, and I don't see any great turnaround there at all."
Receipts don't lie
If you still need convincing that the U.S. is having a rich man's recovery, take a look deeper into shopping patterns over the past several months. Sales at stores open more than a year are the best measure of shopping trends because this strips out the effect of store openings, so that's the yardstick I use.
Longer-term sales numbers are for the most recent quarter for retailers; for most, the quarter ended with January. I've included February numbers when available.
Handbags are back
At Nordstrom, where shoppers can drop $2,500 on a variety of Versace New Couture handbags or $1,295 on a Burberry pleated trench coat, sales at stores open more than a year were up 10.3% in February. January was even better: Sales advanced 14%. Fourth-quarter sales increased 6.9% from a year earlier, driving earnings up 152% to 77 cents a share. All of this came despite Nordstrom's heavy exposure to economically hard-hit California.
At Coach, where handbags in a new line called Poppy typically go for $200 to $300 each but the pricier ones cost $500 or more, sales of handbags and accessories advanced 18% in the most recent quarter. Overall, North American sales were up 3%, doubling cash levels at the company to more $1.1 billion. This helped Coach buy back more shares, enriching shareholders even more.
In contrast, sales at Target, where handbags start at $8 and rarely run above $30, sales have barely budged, up 0.6% in the most recent quarter. Sales recovered a bit for a 2.4% gain in February. But tellingly, sales that month were strongest for food, household essentials and other basics. Spending on discretionary items such as apparel and decorative items for the home were flat or down in February.
"We expect progress to remain slow as consumers face historically high rates of unemployment and lack of access to consumer credit," Target chief Gregg Steinhafel said in his company's most recent conference call with investors.
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