NEW YORK – Holiday sales probably will grow at a slower rate this year than last. That may present an opportunity for investors prepared to wager theyll be better.
Most investors arent betting on a strong shopping season in the United States because of unemployment thats remained above 8 percent since February 2009 and ambiguity about future tax rates, said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago, part of the BMO Financial Group which oversees about $60 billion of assets. Even so, now is the time to consider a trucking-stocks strategy because these conditions may offer a favorable risk-reward, he said.
Everyone associates retail stocks with the holiday season, but trucking companies may be a smarter play for a positive surprise from the consumer, Ablin said. Truckers are an interesting opportunity because their shares have trailed the market since 2009, reflecting pessimism about the economy; meanwhile, retailers have enjoyed an enormous rally – a sign more optimism has been priced into these stocks, he said.
Retail sales, excluding restaurants, vehicles and gasoline, rose 0.9 percent last month from June, the biggest gain since January, based on data from the Census Bureau. Robert Dye, chief economist at Comerica in Dallas, estimates they may increase an inflation-adjusted 2 percent to 3 percent in November and December, the traditional holiday rush, compared with 2.7 percent last year.
Its not doom and gloom, but its not a robust forecast, either, Dye said, adding that holiday sales rose as much as 4.7 percent on an inflation-adjusted basis in 2005.
Weak consumer confidence is hurting discretionary spending and probably will continue through the rest of this year because of anemic job growth and the looming fiscal cliff, he said. The U.S. faces higher taxes and reductions in spending on defense and other government programs that will take effect at year-end unless Congress acts.
The Bloomberg U.S. Asset-Heavy Trucking Index – with 14 companies including Knight Transportation and Werner Enterprises – has lagged behind the Russell 2000 Index by about 51 percent since Dec. 31, 2008. In the same period, the Standard & Poors Retail Select Industry Index has led the broader S&P 500 by 146 percent.
Trucking stocks continue to trail the Russell 2000 and now are at the same key support level as a year ago, in part because earnings for several companies – including Werner and Con-way Inc. – were weaker than investors anticipated, said Jim Stellakis, founder and director of research at Technical Alpha Inc., a research company in New York.
Although investors may be wary about identifying this level as a bottom, trucking stocks last year outperformed the Russell 2000 by 10.6 percent between mid-September and Dec. 30.