WASHINGTON (AP) -- As signs emerge that holiday retail sales this year grew at the weakest pace since 2008, investors are dumping retail stocks. Analysts are crowing about the missing "consumer engine" without which the economy may stagnate.
Many fear that the season's weakness will reverberate throughout the economy: Stores will be saddled with excess merchandise, forcing them to slash prices and accept razor-thin profit margins. Demand will soften for goods up and down the supply chain, leading eventually to a decline in orders for factory goods and weaker manufacturing. Growth will slow.
Yet there are plenty of reasons to believe that these fears are overblown, some market-watchers argue. Auto sales are strong, as are some measures of consumer sentiment. Home values are rising, leaving fewer Americans on the brink of foreclosure and helping many feel more financially secure.
Above all, they point out, there is nothing permanent about the "fiscal cliff," a set of tax hikes and spending cuts that will automatically take effect at the beginning of 2013 if lawmakers are unable to reach a deal to avert it.
When the fiscal issue is addressed and demand bounces back, these contrarians argue, beaten-down retail stocks may turn out to be this year's best after-Christmas bargain.
"There may be some caution ahead of the fiscal cliff" because of uncertainty about tax rates, "but it's more of a road bump than any fundamental weakness," says David Kelly, chief global strategist for JP Morgan Funds.
He notes that a daily tracker of consumer sentiment, the Rasmussen Consumer Index, stands at 97.6, up three points from a week ago and within a point of its 2012 high. Other measures of consumer sentiment have weakened, but Kelly sees the Rasmussen data as more reliable because it is updated daily. Most other indices rely on monthly surveys.
The fiscal cliff isn't the only reason consumers slowed down in November and December. Americans were buffeted by a series of events, mostly temporary, that made them more likely to stay home.
Superstorm Sandy caused steep holiday sales declines in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic that made the national picture appear far weaker. The presidential election distracted people in November, the Newtown massacre in December. And the rising din about Washington's current budget impasse left many people unsure what their 2013 household budgets will look like.
By Christmas Day, the results were in: Spending in key retail categories increased only 0.7 percent, just a fraction of the 3 percent to 4 percent that many analysts had expected, according to MasterCard Advisors Spendingpulse, a market data provider. It was the worst year since 2008, when the cresting financial crisis had dragged the economy into a deep recession.
Some analysts saw that as a worrying sign of things to come. Jeff Sica, president and chief investment officer of SICA Wealth Management in Morristown, N.J., called the retail sales result "onerous" and "a negative overhang on the market."
Investors didn't wait for the results from specific stores, which will add detail to the picture when they are released in early January. They pushed down retailers in the Standard & Poor's 500 index by 2.6 percent in a weeklong period when the broader index declined only 1.8 percent. Computer and electronics retailers fared the worst, sinking 4.7 percent.
Not so fast, says Karyn Cavanaugh, market strategist with ING Investment Management in New York. The consumer discretionary sector is among her favorites.
"The consumer has shown surprising resilience throughout this tepid recovery and we believe will continue to do so," Cavanaugh says. The housing turnaround "will further aid consumer and consumer confidence," she said.
Consumer spending, to be sure, is a critical indicator of economic activity. It accounts for about 70 percent of the economy, so a true slowdown could have a painful ripple effect. That's especially true in the final two months of the year, which contribute 40 percent of annual sales for many retailers.
Some analysts are warning that the pain for retailers has only just begun. Brian Sozzi, chief equities analyst at NBG Productions, says revenue results and fourth-quarter earnings forecasts, due out early next month, pose another threat to retail stocks. Sozzi recommends betting against some weaker brands, including teen apparel chain Aeropostale.
"The moment to potentially entertain this sector from a long perspective will be sometime before earnings season begins in mid-February," assuming stocks continue to sink because of weak guidance and "general market angst," Sozzi said in a note to clients Friday.
According to Kelly and other market bulls, consumers haven't meaningfully slowed their spending. They're merely holding off as they wait for lawmakers to craft a deal that would prevent some of the scheduled tax increases.
"There's a difference between confidence and spending attitudes," Kelly says. "People are generally feeling more confident because home prices are going up."
The government said Thursday that sales of new homes rose in November to the fastest pace in two and a half years.
Kelly and others believe that a deal on the fiscal cliff as all but inevitable -- eventually. He acknowledges that the waiting could be painful for consumers, retailers and most other businesses as well, but says, "If we don't get a fiscal cliff deal, then we'll wait and get a fiscal cliff deal."
Analysts who doubt that consumers will bounce back quite so quickly argue that consumers are still paying down debt and have less interest in shopping sprees, in part because median incomes are falling.
Despite the stronger housing market and other positive signs, "they're going to take the opportunity to retrench, rather than buy stuff," says Derrick Irwin, portfolio manager for Wells Fargo Advantage Funds.
Peter Tchir, manager of the hedge fund TF Market Advisors, says consumers may be shopping less because economic turbulence has helped people reassess the value of what they consume.
"We've overconsumed for so long that how much do you really need to add?" he says. "To some extent, it's healthy for Americans to live within their means. But clearly, this week, it's not great for retail stocks."
AP Business Writer Christina Rexrode contributed to this report.
Daniel Wagner can be reached at www.twitter.com/wagnerreports