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Black Friday Lured Shoppers Back, in Early Test for Holiday Spending

Stores on average welcomed more consumers compared with last year, industry data show

By SARAH NASSAUER
Mon, Nov 28, 2022 9:02amGrey Clock 3 min

Americans returned to their pre pandemic habits on Black Friday as they spent more time and money in stores than last year, but some data show they were also cautious with spending as inflation weighs on their pocketbooks.

The boost in store traffic over Black Friday comes after a surge last year from 2020, the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic when many shoppers favoured buying online. Shoppers still bought items online this year, but many browsed in stores, revelling in a holiday tradition, according to early data. Some consultants and industry groups have predicted slower sales growth for the overall holiday season compared with last year.

Shoppers who held off on purchases are betting on even better deals in the days leading up to Christmas, which falls on a Sunday this year, according to shoppers and retail executives. High gasoline and grocery prices are also weighing on many households.

Chloe Gonzales woke up at 4 a.m. in Austin, Texas, to do some Christmas shopping and look for winter clothes on Black Friday. “People are less fearful about going out now,” Ms. Gonzales said. “They’re not as worried about Covid.”

Ms. Gonzales said she has found good deals this year, but added that she is spending a little more money compared with last year. This time, she found a leather jacket for 50% off. “I like the thrill of going out shopping and finding a good deal,” Ms. Gonzales said.

Store traffic rose 7% this Black Friday compared with last, said RetailNext, a firm that tracks shopper counts in thousands of stores with cameras and sensors. In-store sales rose 0.1%, and the average shopper spent less per visit than last year, according to the firm. Sensormatic Solutions, another firm that analyses store traffic, said Black Friday traffic rose 2.9% compared with 2021.

Black Friday had been losing importance before the pandemic hit as shoppers spread out holiday shopping, grabbing earlier deals or buying more online. This year is “a bit of a return to normalcy,” said Brian Field, global head of retail consulting for Sensormatic.

Sales on Black Friday rose 12% from last year, according to Mastercard SpendingPulse, which measures in-store and online retail sales across all forms of payment. The report excludes auto sales and isn’t adjusted for inflation, meaning that it could reflect people paying higher prices for goods than they did in 2021.

Consumers were deal-driven, said Steve Sadove, senior adviser for Mastercard and former chief executive of department-store chain Saks Inc. “Apparel, electronics and restaurants were strong-performing sectors as consumers turned holiday shopping into a full-day experience,” he said.

This holiday many retailers entered the season, which they often rely on for a significant percentage of their annual sales, with too much inventory. To clear those goods, a slew of retailers are offering heavy discounts, a move that can eat into their profits.

Consumers are also feeling less bullish about their economic prospects. Last week the University of Michigan released its November consumer-sentiment index, which fell 5.2% compared with October and is down 16% compared with November 2021.

Amid persistent inflation, retailers including Walmart Inc. and Target Corp. said shoppers were spending less on discretionary items heading into the holidays. Some chains including Macy’s Inc., Kohl’s Corp. and Target said sales slowed in October and early November. Some executives expect shoppers to delay holiday purchases until closer to Christmas.

It has been “kind of a lukewarm Black Friday,” said David Bassuk, global co-leader of the retail practice at AlixPartners, a consulting firm. “It’s more of an experience than it is a purchasing moment,” he added.

Retailers are playing a game of chicken with shoppers looking for deals, Mr. Bassuk said. For a retailer, leaving the holiday season without moving enough inventory is a disaster, he said. “That’s why the discounts get deeper every week,” Mr. Bassuk said.

Online sales on Black Friday rose 2.3% to $9.12 billion from last year, according to Adobe Analytics, which tracks spending on websites. On Thanksgiving people spent $5.3 billion online, up 2.9% from the holiday last year, according to Adobe.

For many shoppers, Black Friday shopping is a family pastime, regardless of how much is spent.

Lazaro Allen, an artist living in New York City, visited a Best Buy Co. store in nearby Mount Vernon, N.Y., in search of a 65-inch television. He planned to head to Macy’s next to buy gifts.

“There are so many TVs here,” he said, looking down the aisles. He said inflation hasn’t taken a significant toll on his finances, and he went to stores on Friday more out of tradition than because he expected major deals.

This month, the National Retail Federation predicted sales would rise between 6% and 8% to between $942.6 billion and $960.4 billion from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31. The figures exclude spending at car dealers, gasoline stations and restaurants and aren’t adjusted for inflation.

Lauren Pote, a 47-year-old clinical psychologist, said she is being more selective in what she is buying this year, because everything costs more. “It may take me a bit longer to buy gifts this year, because I’m really hunting for the sales,” said Ms. Pote, who was shopping with her family on Friday at the SoNo Collection Mall in Norwalk, Conn.

She bought a sweatshirt for her son from Hollister that was 40% off. “I don’t typically shop on Black Friday,” Ms. Pote said, “but it was raining and we wanted to get out of the house.”

—Suzanne Kapner, Adolfo Flores and Sharon Terlep contributed to this article.

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Where Are Stocks, Bonds and Crypto Headed Next? Five Investors Look Into Crystal Ball

Equities are often seen as expensive after promising start to 2023

By CAITLIN MCCABE
Mon, Jan 30, 2023 7 min

A new trading year kicked off just weeks ago. Already it bears little resemblance to the carnage of 2022.

After languishing throughout last year, growth stocks have zoomed higher. Tesla Inc. and Nvidia Corp., for example, have jumped more than 30%. The outlook for bonds is brightening after a historic rout. Even bitcoin has rallied, despite ongoing effects from the collapse of the crypto exchange FTX.

The rebound has been driven by renewed optimism about the global economic outlook. Investors have embraced signs that inflation has peaked in the U.S. and abroad. Many are hoping that next week the Federal Reserve will slow its pace of interest-rate increases yet again. China’s lifting of Covid-19 restrictions pleasantly surprised many traders who have welcomed the move as a sign that more growth is ahead.

Still, risks loom large. Many investors aren’t convinced that the rebound is sustainable. Some are worried about stretched stock valuations, or whether corporate earnings will face more pain down the road. Others are fretting that markets aren’t fully pricing in the possibility of a recession, or what might happen if the Fed continues to fight inflation longer than currently anticipated.

We asked five investors to share how they are positioning for that uncertainty and where they think markets could be headed next. Here is what they said:

‘Animal spirits’ could return

Cliff Asness, founder of AQR Capital Management, acknowledges that he wasn’t expecting the run in speculative stocks and digital currencies that has swept markets to kick off 2023.

Bitcoin prices have jumped around 40%. Some of the stocks that are the most heavily bet against on Wall Street are sitting on double-digit gains. Carvana Co. has soared nearly 64%, while MicroStrategy Inc. has surged more than 80%. Cathie Wood‘s ARK Innovation ETF has gained about 29%.

If the past few years have taught Mr. Asness anything, it is to be prepared for such run-ups to last much longer than expected. His lesson from the euphoria regarding risky trades in 2020 and 2021? Don’t count out the chance that the frenzy will return again, he said.

“It could be that there are still these crazy animal spirits out there,” Mr. Asness said.

Still, he said that hasn’t changed his conviction that cheaper stocks in the market, known as value stocks, are bound to keep soaring past their peers. There might be short spurts of outperformance for more-expensive slices of the market, as seen in January. But over the long term, he is sticking to his bet that value stocks will beat growth stocks. He is expecting a volatile, but profitable, stretch for the trade.

“I love the value trade,” Mr. Asness said. “We sing about it to our clients.”

—Gunjan Banerji

Keeping dollar’s moves in focus

For Richard Benson, co-chief investment officer of Millennium Global Investments Ltd., no single trade was more important last year than the blistering rise of the U.S. dollar.

Once a relatively placid area of markets following the 2008 financial crisis, currencies have found renewed focus from Wall Street and Main Street. Last year the dollar’s unrelenting rise dented multinational companies’ profits, exacerbated inflation for countries that import American goods and repeatedly surprised some traders who believed the greenback couldn’t keep rallying so fast.

The factors that spurred the dollar’s rise are now contributing to its fall. Ebbing inflation and expectations of slower interest-rate increases from the Fed have sent the dollar down 1.7% this year, as measured by the WSJ Dollar Index.

Mr. Benson is betting more pain for the dollar is ahead and sees the greenback weakening between 3% and 5% over the next three to six months.

“When the biggest central bank in the world is on the move, look at everything through their lens and don’t get distracted,” said Mr. Benson of the London-based currency fund manager, regarding the Fed.

This year Mr. Benson expects the dollar’s fall to ripple similarly far and wide across global economies and markets.

“I don’t see many people complaining about a weaker dollar” over the next few months, he said. “If the dollar is falling, that economic setup should also mean that tech stocks should do quite well.”

Mr. Benson said he expects the dollar’s fall to brighten the outlook for some emerging- market assets, and he is betting on China’s offshore yuan as the country’s economy reopens. He sees the euro strengthening versus the dollar if the eurozone’s economy continues to fare better than expected.

—Caitlin McCabe

Stocks still appear overvalued

Even after the S&P 500 fell 15% from its record high reached in January 2022, U.S. stocks still look expensive, said Rupal Bhansali, chief investment officer of Ariel Investments, who oversees $6.7 billion in assets.

Of course, the market doesn’t appear as frothy as it did for much of 2020 and 2021, but she said she expects a steeper correction in prices ahead.

The broad stock-market gauge recently traded at 17.9 times its projected earnings over the next 12 months, according to FactSet. That is below the high of around 24 hit in late 2020, but above the historical average over the past 20 years of 15.7, FactSet data show.

“The old habit was buy the dip,” Ms. Bhansali said. “The new habit should be sell the rip.”

One reason Ms. Bhansali said the selloff might not be over yet? The market is still underestimating the Fed.

Investors repeatedly mispriced how fast the Fed would move in 2022, wrongly expecting the central bank to ease up on its rate increases. They were caught off guard by Fed Chair Jerome Powell‘s aggressive messages on interest rates. It stoked steep selloffs in the stock market, leading to the most turbulent year since the 2008 financial crisis. Now investors are making the same mistake again, Ms. Bhansali said.

Current stock valuations don’t reflect the big shift coming in central-bank policy, which she thinks will have to be more aggressive than many expect. Though broader measures of inflation have been falling, some slices, such as services inflation, have proved stickier. Ms. Bhansali is positioning for such areas as healthcare, which she thinks would be more insulated from a recession than the rest of the market, to outperform.

“The Fed is determined to win the war since they lost the battle,” Ms. Bhansali said.

—Gunjan Banerji

A better year for bonds seen

Gone are the days when tumbling bond yields left investors with few alternatives to stocks. Finally, bonds are back, according to Niall O’Sullivan of Neuberger Berman, an investment manager overseeing about $427 billion in client assets at the end of 2022.

After a turbulent year for the fixed-income market in 2022, bonds have kicked off the new year on a more promising note. The Bloomberg U.S. Aggregate Bond Index—composed largely of U.S. Treasurys, highly rated corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities—climbed 3% so far this year on a total return basis through Thursday’s close. That is the index’s best start to a year since it began in 1989, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

Mr. O’Sullivan, the chief investment officer of multi asset strategies for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Neuberger Berman, said the single biggest conversation he is currently having with clients is how to increase fixed-income exposure.

“Strategically, the facts have changed. When you look at fixed income as an asset class…they’re now all providing yield, and possibly even more importantly, actual cash coupons of a meaningful size,” he said. “That is a very different world to the one we’ve been in for quite a long time.”

Mr. O’Sullivan said it is important to reconsider how much of an advantage stocks now hold over bonds, given what he believes are looming risks for the stock market. He predicts that inflation will be harder to wrangle than investors currently anticipate and that the Fed will hold its peak interest rate steady for longer than is currently expected. Even more worrying, he said, it will be harder for companies to continue passing on price increases to consumers, which means earnings could see bigger hits in the future.

“That is why we are wary on the equity side,” he said.

Among the products that Mr. O’Sullivan said he favours in the fixed-income space are higher-quality and shorter-term bonds. Still, he added, it is important for investors to find portfolio diversity outside bonds this year. For that, he said he views commodities as attractive, specifically metals such as copper, which could continue to benefit from China’s reopening.

—Caitlin McCabe

 

Find the fear, and find the value

Ramona Persaud, a portfolio manager at Fidelity Investments, said she can still identify bargains in a pricey market by looking in less-sanguine places. Find the fear, and find the value, she said.

“When fear really rises, you can buy some very well-run businesses,” she said.

Take Taiwan’s semiconductor companies. Concern over global trade and tensions with China have weighed on the shares of chip makers based on the island. But those fears have led many investors to overlook the competitive advantages those companies hold over rivals, she said.

“That is a good setup,” said Ms. Persaud, who considers herself a conservative value investor and manages more than $20 billion across several U.S. and Canadian funds.

The S&P 500 is trading above fair value, she said, which means “there just isn’t widespread opportunity,” and investors might be underestimating some of the risks that lie in waiting.

“That tells me the market is optimistic,” said Ms. Persaud. “That would be OK if the risks were not exogenous.”

Those challenges, whether rising interest rates and Fed policy or Russia’s war in Ukraine and concern over energy-security concerns in Europe, are complicated, and in many cases, interrelated.

It isn’t all bad news, she said. China ended its zero-Covid restrictions. A milder winter in Europe has blunted the effects of the war in Ukraine on energy prices and helped the continent sidestep recession, and inflation is slowing.

“These are reasons the market is so happy,” she said.

—Justin Baer

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