I am always suspicious of early holiday season reports of glowing sales around Thanksgiving and especially Black Friday. Then, right after Christmas I always wonder if retailers lowball estimates so they can beat-the-street on same-store-sales reports.
That said, because of the souring economy I am not surprised by reports of Lackluster Holiday Sales.
The 2012 holiday season may have been the worst for retailers since the financial crisis, with sales growth far below expectations, forcing many to offer massive post-Christmas discounts in hopes of shedding excess inventory.
While chains like Wal-Mart Stores Inc and Gap Inc are thought to have done well, analysts expect much less from the likes of Barnes & Noble Inc and J. C. Penney Co.
The latest sign of trouble came from MasterCard Advisors Spending Pulse, which reported holiday-related sales rose 0.7 percent from October 28 through December 24, compared with a 2 percent increase last year.
The estimates are still preliminary and focus on sales, not profits. A handful of retailers will post sales data next week, but most, including heavyweights like Wal-Mart, will not report results at the register until they release financial results in mid-February.
Analysts and industry groups already expected sales to grow at a slower pace than in 2011 and 2010. The National Retail Federation predicted 4.l percent sales growth, versus a 5.6 percent increase a year earlier.
But growth of less than 1 percent is weaker than even some of the most pessimistic forecasts.
One concern for retailers is that weak sales will mean an excess of inventory that will force some to slash prices.
Among other brands, Barnes & Noble offered 50 percent discounts in stores via email promotions on Wednesday, while Ann Inc had half-off at its Loft stores, and Bloomingdale's promoted discounts of up to 75 percent in some cases.
"Retailers are no longer chasing sales, they are chasing inventory management. That means the discounts that they would have liked to be at 50-60 (percent) off have climbed to 75 to even 80 (percent) off," said Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group.
Erica Ayala, 31, a mother of four who lives in New York's Harlem neighborhood, waited until the day after Christmas to shop for that very reason, saving more than $150 on kids' clothes alone at Gap's Old Navy chain.
"You can't go wrong with that," she said.
On December 31 the US will once again hit the debt limit and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner is working on an emergency plan to deal with the situation.
Here's the kicker. If the Fiscal Cliff hits (which it likely will), the increased tax revenue and spending cuts would automatically buy the Treasury some time.
Please consider Geithner's plan to buy time under debt ceiling.
The Treasury on Wednesday announced the first of a series of measures that should push back the day when the government will exceed its legal borrowing authority as imposed by Congress by around two months.
Without any action, Treasury said the government is set to reach its $16.4 trillion debt ceiling on December 31.
To cut government spending and delay bumping up against the debt ceiling, the Treasury will suspend issuance of state and local government series securities -- known as "slugs" -- beginning on December 28.
Investments in a government employee pension fund will also be suspended, along with some other measures, although Treasury did not give dates for when these other measures will begin.
"These extraordinary measures ... can create approximately $200 billion in headroom under the debt limit," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner wrote in a letter to congressional leaders.
Normally, these measures would buy the Treasury about two months time before hitting the debt ceiling, Geithner said in the letter. But a series of planned tax hikes and spending cuts due to take effect in early January could give Treasury further time if they take effect as scheduled, he said.