Weak sales: Bad sign for consumer spending?

Sluggish sales in January and February suggest the housing downturn could keep a lid on spending.

By Parija B. Kavilanz, CNNMoney.com senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Tuesday's sluggish retail sales numbers may be the first ominous sign that the American consumers' remarkable propensity to keep spending is beginning to wane.

Some experts think the consumer is definitely tiring but not necessarily ready to roll over and stop shopping - yet.

Why do we care? Because consumer spending is the backbone of the U.S. economy, fueling two-thirds of all economic activity.

Investors noticed as well, driving retail stocks - and the broader market - sharply lower. The Dow Jones retail index sank about 1.8 percent.

According to the Commerce Department, retail sales rose an anemic 0.1 percent last month, below Wall Street forecasts for a 0.3 percent rise. Excluding the volatile auto sector, sales dipped 0.1 percent, also missing estimates for a 0.3 percent increase.

This followed an equally lackluster performance in the prior month. So that's two consecutive months of stagnating sales. And last week, big stores such as Wal-Mart (Charts), J.C. Penney (Charts), Gap (Charts) and other chains reported disappointing sales at stores open at least a year, a key measure of retail performance known as same-store sales.

Retailers blamed colder weather for crimping shoppers' enthusiasm last month.

But while the weather played a part, it wasn't the whole story, said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist with High Frequency Economics.

Other industry watchers note that they're worried about the recent uptick in gas prices which could squeeze discretionary spending.

"Consumption is under pressure and it won't get better any time soon," Shepherdson warned in a note Tuesday.

According to the government report, retail sales fell across the board. Furniture sales declined 1.7 percent last month, clothing sales fell 1.8 percent and department stores reported a sales decline of 1.6 percent.

Elsewhere, sporting goods sales dropped 0.8 percent. And the housing crunch helped drive sales of building material 1.4 percent lower last month.

Among the few bright spots, motor vehicle sales rose 0.9 percent; food and beverage sellers reported a 0.6 percent sales increase and sales at gas stations rose 1.2 percent.

University of Maryland professor Peter Morici said the sluggish growth indicates that the economy remained sluggish in February. As a result, he estimates that first-quarter GDP growth is more likely to come in at less than 2.5 percent versus 2.2 percent in the fourth quarter.

Morici's also keeping an eye on rising gas prices.

"In February, the average retail price of gasoline was up 5 cents, or 1.5 percent. This had a modest impact on sales in other sectors," he wrote in a note emailed to CNNMoney.com.

Meanwhile, other economists worry that rising number of subprime mortgage delinquencies could eventually become a negative for consumers in general.

Nigel Gault, economist with Global Insight, estimated that subprime loans account for 13 percent of total mortgages. Subprime loans by definitions are given to the riskiest borrowers, or typically low-income consumers with poor credit.

These borrowers also represents the core shoppers at large discount stores like Wal-Mart (Charts) and Target (Charts).

"The more houses that are foreclosed because of defaults, the more it perpetuates excess supply in the housing market and depresses the wealth of all consumers," Gault said.

To be sure, when interest rates were falling and home prices were rising, many low to mid-income American consumers quickly refinanced their mortgages at the lower rates, effectively turning their homes into piggy banks, and raided them for cash.

But as rates started to climb, refi activity slowed as did consumers ability to pull money from their homes. Gault said the knock-on effect from foreclosures could further erode consumers' access to disposable income.

Moreover, he fears the widening scope of the fallout. "There's going to be a credit-crunch issue," Gault said. "Lenders will tighten their standards up the ladder to higher-quality borrowers. That will make it more difficult for the average consumer to borrow against their homes, which essentially has been an important driver of retail spending lately."

Having said that, Gault and others are quick to note retail sales are unlikely to fall off the table anytime soon. They cite a stable job market and income growth, two other of triggers of consumer spending.

"Real income growth is still looking better than last year and that should be sufficient to keep spending growth at 3 percent this year," Gault said, adding that he also anticipates real disposable income to grow 3.4 percent in 2007, outpacing last year's 2.6 percent growth.

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