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E-commerce is insulated from deteriorating consumer confidence

Brian Cheung

E-commerce companies and the industries highly exposed to them are reporting no slowdown in retail sales, despite pessimistic readings on consumer confidence.

At the closing bell on Thursday, Amazon (AMZNreported a 20% increase in net sales to $72.4 billion, aided by a 14% year-over-year boost in net sales on its online stores. For comparison, BMO Capital Markets estimated year-over-year growth of only 8.8%.

Companies tied to e-commerce are also showing record numbers in their earnings. UPS, which spent billions of dollars in 2018 upgrading its capacity, reported estimate-beating earnings for the fourth-quarter off of record shipments during the holiday season.

‘We see growth ... to electronic forms of commerce’

“E-commerce is providing all kinds of opportunities,” UPS CEO David Abney said on the conference call this week, adding that small- and mid-size businesses are playing a bigger role despite the presence of large retailers.

Visa (V), which reported earnings after the bell on Wednesday, said on its earnings call that e-commerce continues to grow more than three times faster than non e-commerce.

And Mastercard (MA), which also beat EPS estimates in its earnings report on Thursday, said a 17% increase in cross-border volumes was supported by use of its cards in e-commerce transactions abroad.

Amazon Prime and other packages are unloaded from an UPS delivery truck before being unloaded in Miami, Tuesday, July 17, 2018. Amazon Prime Day was launched July 16 and and will be six hours longer than last year's and will launch new products. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

“Clearly we see growth and secular movement to electronic forms of commerce,” Mastercard President and CEO Ajay Banga said on a company earnings call.

The positive reports tell a different story than the plunging readings on consumer confidence. Data from the Conference Board earlier this week showed U.S. consumer attitudes at a year-and-a-half low of 120.2 in January.

To be fair, earnings releases are lagging indicators and consumer confidence readings are designed to forecast future spending behavior. But consumer confidence readings have shown three straight months of declines, showing that as early as October, Americans have signaled more conservative spending habits amid uncertainty tied to geopolitical risks like the unresolved trade war between the U.S. and China.

‘Moderation’ in 2019

Does this predict that consumers will spend less online in 2019?

Analysts say it could. Oppenheimer, for example, cited consumer confidence as a “key risk” to Amazon. The e-commerce giant projected slightly disappointing guidance for the first-quarter of 2019, projecting between $56 billion and $60 billion in net sales which was slightly below estimates.

But the companies themselves say the outlook for e-commerce only faces “moderate risk.”

Visa CEO Alfred Kelly Jr. said he already saw e-commerce “decelerate modestly versus last year.” And in line with broader concerns about a global slowdown in 2019, Kelly Jr. warned that an “uncertain” geopolitical environment could present some challenges.

Mastercard’s Ajay Banga also used the word “moderate,” saying that although he doesn’t expect a breakout year ahead, he also doesn’t think that “2019 is a year in which you will see more than some moderation.”

Bank of America Merrill Lynch used the same language in its retail outlook for 2019, in which it described 2018 as a “strong year” overall.

“We expect moderation into 2019 but for the consumer to stay engaged,” the note read.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the banking industry and the intersection of finance and policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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