There are only eight weeks to shop before Christmas. The Christmas countdown has begun on Wall Street, where retail analysts are assessing the prospects for department stores, specialty shops, and mass merchandisers. So far the outlook is not so bright.
''I'm not too optimistic about the consumer,'' says Francis Rienhoff, vice-president at T. Rowe Price, the Baltimore-based mutual fund. ''It will take a high degree of promotion to turn him on and get inventories back in line.''
Ed Johnson, director of Johnson Redbook Service, a division of Prescott, Ball & Turben, likewise believes the consumer will be a hard sell this year. ''I'm looking for retail sales to start being hurt by the decline in employment, the slowdown in hours worked . . . and a decline in consumer (confidence),'' Mr. Johnson says. He also points out that the All-Savers certificates and other high-interest-paying accounts will be siphoning disposable income from the retailer. The tax cut is not expected to have great effect, but the consumer should be cheered by a declining inflation rate.
Kaye Norwood, a vice-president at Interstate Securities Corporation in Charlotte, N.C., agrees that stores will have to be quite promotional this year. ''They are already promoting Christmas sales here,'' she exclaimed, pointing out that promotion cuts into profit margins. As for her outlook, she says, ''I wish I knew, but if I had to guess, I think I'd say Christmas sales will be reasonably good.''
Not all areas of the country will have a chilly Christmas. Mr. Rienhoff points out that in areas like Louisiana, where oil and gas revenues have been strong, the retail prospects are good. Other parts of the South and even the Northeast are expected to be relatively strong.
In the West, however, hurt by a downturn in real estate prices, and in the central region, singing the Detroit blues, the outlook is less favorable. Rienhoff says he was at a recent conference on the West Coast and noticed an item in the local newspaper that showed the performance of the stocks of local electronics companies. On average, he noticed, they were down about 40 percent. ''That kind of thing could have an effect,'' he adds.
Johnson says that despite all the negatives, the season could be a ''cliffhanger.'' If the consumer suddenly develops ''the Christmas spirit,'' he points out, it could be a busy Christmas. Otherwise, he looks for just a fair one. So far it hasn't been a bad year. As of Oct. 24, chain store sales were up 10 percent over a year ago. But they were up 13 percent a year ago, which indicates they're beginning to slow down - a bad sign for the Christmas merchants.
Some children may already have a gift list, and so does Morgan Stanley. The blue blood investment banker, in its latest issue of Investment Perspectives, a research report it sends to institutional customers, suggested 10 stocks for clients to buy.
The list stresses ''defensive'' types. It says, ''Presently we are emphasizing high quality stocks with noncyclical, domestic, defensive earnings growth characteristics.''
The list, with some comments, reads:
Citibank: ''should be a major beneficiary of the expected interest rate decline.''
Control Data: ''has exposure to fast-growth computer business.''
Digital Equipment: ''outperforming most computers; earnings healthy.''
General Reinsurance: ''estimated growth rate in earnings up 16 percent annually.''
Eli Lilly: ''growth at 20 percent-plus rate.''
Noxell: ''strong sales growth spurred by Cover Girl line.''
Procter & Gamble: ''lackluster earnings gains now discounted, 14 percent secular growth likely.''
Standard Oil of California: ''attractive proven and possible reserve position.''
The big investment banking firm is also positive about long-term bonds. ''The real rate of return is attractive,'' Morgan Stanley says, adding, ''The high yields are impressive.''
A powerful rally on Friday pushed the market out of the doldrums last week. Henry Kaufman, changing his opinion, predicted lower interest rates over the near term. As this news spread, stocks surged, pumping the Dow Jones industrial average up 19.60 points for the best one-day gain since March. This gain erased the losses accumulated for the week, and the Dow finished at 852.55, up 14.56 points for the week. Volume on Friday expanded to 58 million shares.
The market not only responded to Mr. Kaufman, but also Mobil's bid for Marathon Oil. Most oil stocks spurted as more takeover rumors spread. Another active stock was Citibank, which was expected to benefit from the easing in interest rates.