the Insiders


Showing posts by Arnold J. Karr - Senior Editor, Financial
One of the most unsettling things about economic booms is the knowledge, bitterly reinforced in the past year, that one day the bubble is going to burst. Similarly, it's one of the few consolations in an economic decline that it, too, will end one day and that recovery will at some point become unstoppable and undeniable.

WWD recently asked a lot of very smart people when the recovery would begin and what would precipitate it. Not surprisingly, few were able to predict the "when" and "what" with much certainty or commitment, and a few even had the candor to admit they had no idea. One source, who politely opted out when asked for an on-the-record comment, said, "The patient will get better when he stops being so sick."

Retailers finish their fiscal years at the end of January, after catching their breaths and attempting to trim their inventories and redeem gift cards once the holidays ended.

That means that we're about to be swamped, and possibly hosed, by a tidal wave of earnings results. They're not going to be pretty, but neither will they be quite as ugly as they appear at first. Let's hope all these earnings guidance revisions have prepared us properly. But how can we get a firm grasp on what these numbers mean and overcome numerical sensory overload?

A year ago, in a page-one story headlined "Bad and Getting Worse: Retailer Worries Spiral as Comp Sales Stumble," WWD reported on a very disappointing December 2007 during which 27 of the 41 stores tracked suffered same-store sales declines. Mass merchants, on average, moved up 1.1 percent, but specialty stores tracked down 3 percent and, even with increases at Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom, department stores lost 5.4 percent. Sales weren't quite as bad as expected, but the story warned of "a recession -- or 'recession-like' conditions -- as consumer spending slows to a crawl."

The story made no mention of fuel or gasoline, but it did take note, ominously enough, of a possible acquisition of "beleaguered mortgage firm Countrywide Financial Corp." Moody's Investors Service analyst John Lonski warned of a tough 2008 "until the labor market firms" and of the smallest expansion in consumer spending -- 2 percent -- since 1991.

Ah, the good old days!
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