View from City Road: False spring in the retail sector

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The Independent Online
THE stock market is a perverse beast. For the past 18 months investors have been mopping up stores shares, convinced the retail upturn is just around the corner. Now - just as official figures tentatively suggest shoppers are at last dusting the cobwebs from their purses - the retail sector has fallen out of favour. As the chart shows, stores have significantly underperformed the stock market since mid-January.

The reasons are not hard to spot. The unexciting Christmas trading reports damped down investor enthusiasm, as did the fear that VAT may be extended to zero-rated products like children's clothing, books and magazines. The rights issues of Burton ( pounds 163m and announced) and Kingfisher ( pounds 350m perhaps and imminent) have had a depressing impact.

Then there has been the string of boo- boos from companies. Dixons Group revealed the full horror of its Silo chain in the US. Boots and WH Smith were embarrassed by their Do It All joint venture. Storehouse lost its chief executive. Body Shop and Alexon issued profits warnings.

For once the Central Statistical Office and the CBI agree that January was strong. Geoffrey Maitland-Smith, chairman of Sears, also says last month was an improvement: 'There's certainly more life out there than there was, but nothing to get excited about.'

The FT-SE stores sector index closed up 12.4 at 1,324.7 yesterday. That is still 90 points below the peak achieved on 5 January on the back of the euphoria over the January sales. Its full rehabilitation is unlikely until there is sustained evidence of an upturn. One strong retail sales figure does not a summer make.

(Photograph omitted)