Retail momentum is heading in the right direction. Sales climbed in both January and February after an extraordinary and highly unusual two-quarter contraction in the second half of 2008.
Optimists looking for fresh signs of a recessionary bottom will have to wait until next week to find more evidence -- as indicated by Friday's payrolls report -- that the worst is over.
“This week is a tough week because there isn’t anything to sink our teeth into,” says one such optimist, Robert Brusca, chief economist at Fact & Opinion Economics.
At best, there's the weekly initial jobless claims Thursday, which could confirm what some see as part of a recent trend suggesting improvement is near.
The more heavyweight data, however, comes next week with monthly reports on the retail, housing and industrial sectors.
“The key is in things like orders for manufactured goods, home sales, car sales,” says David Resler, chief economist at Nomura Securities. "Those are going to tell us how close to a bottom we are.”
March retail sales, due out April 14, certainly will be a headline report.
“Retail sales is all important,” says Ram Bhagavatula, managing director at the hedge fund, Combinatorics Capital. “You need to see persistent increases in retail sales.”
Right now, momentum is heading in the right direction. Sales climbed in both January and February after an extraordinary and highly unusual two-quarter contraction in the second half of 2008.
Based on surprisingly strong auto sales data for March, released last week, the consensus for March retail sales has brightened to possibly a third consecutive monthly increase. Excluding autos, sales are expected to rise 0.7 percent, according to Briefing.com’s survey.
“Auto sales are kind of encouraging,” says Brusca, who says it’s still too soon to say which way the headline retail sales number will go. “The consumer is holding up his end of the bargain.”
That may also finally be true of housing. Housing starts and building permit data scheduled for release April 16 may show another increase.
“We may be at the point where builders need to start putting up homes again," says Resler. Though much has been made of the glut in new homes in the past two years, inventory has shrunk sharply and is now near historically normal levels. In addition, “inventory may not be evenly dispersed,” says Resler.
More indicative housing data -- existing and new home sales -- however, won’t be out until April 23-24.
If retail and housing are indeed in the process of bottoming, then there may be another pleasant surprise next week—the University of Michigan’s preliminary report on consumer sentiment in April.
“I think you could get a little bounce there, reflecting the improvement in the stock market,” says Bank of America Securities Chief Economist Mickey Levy, who emphasizes that the index has been hovering at a very low level.”
Levy and others say consumption may be stabilizing but the production side of the economy isn’t there yet; capacity utilization and industrial production data from the Federal Reserve next week (April 15) should underscore that.
Industrial production is expected to fall 1.4 percent in March, according to the Briefing.com consensus, matching February’s decline.
“Businesses right now are in the mode of slashing production and employment,” says Levy. "It will continue in that mode until product demand returns.”
“If consumption keeps up, it will force a lot of producers to start up again," says Bhagavatula, who says once-big inventories are being whittled away as part of a standard correction. “The sharper it is, the better it is for growth," he explains.
Resler points to what may be both a leading indicator, for the consumption-production cycle rebound.
General merchandise stores, such as Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) and Costco (NASDAQ: COST), have now increased employment for fourth straight months. For instance, Dollar General recently said it plans to create up to 4,000 jobs this year as it opens 450 new stores
Resler "interprets that … as part of the process of making sure they have the staff to clear out the inventory and get goods from the warehouse to the stores. If you are putting in place aggressive sales promotions, you better have the staff to help move the merchandise. Whether it is temporary or transitory remains to be seen."
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