Reports from leading retailers such as Wal-Mart and Tesco provide the best real-time insight into what is really happening in the wider economy. It is clear from both companies’ recent results that US and some other western consumer markets are slowing very quickly. This has critical implications for chemical companies.
In the US, Wal-Mart see a ‘difficult retail environment’. Their core offering is now ‘Wal-Mart’s food performance…which helped drive traffic to other areas of the stores’. In response, their strategy is focused on ‘price leadership’, and they noted that ‘customers responded to our pricing and merchandise offerings’ over the holiday period.
Since the holiday season, US sales growth has slowed further. Tom Schoewe, CFO, said they were now seeing just 2% growth, compared to 2.6% during the holiday period. In real terms, after adjusting for inflation, this means that sales growth is now negative.
Tesco are seeing a similar pattern in the UK, reporting that sales growth is now just 3.1%. This is also negative in real terms. Andrew Higginson, Tesco’s finance director, said that ‘we have all been affected by the market, as it slows’.
Back in July, I noted that the same retailers were the first to spot that ‘consumer attitudes have shifted sharply in recent weeks’. At that time, they were reporting that price had become the critical factor, and said they were aiming to ‘lower prices by working with key suppliers’.
It is clear that core markets for chemicals - housing, autos, and now retail - are all becoming more difficult. It is therefore hard to be optimistic about the next few months. Feedstock costs are high, volumes are coming under threat from lower consumer demand, and so margins will suffer.
Back in October, I suggested that CFO’s might be wise to develop ‘contingency plans’ in case consumer spending weakened whilst banks stopped lending. It now looks as those plans will, unfortunately, be needed.