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The biggest online retailer in the US is warning of 'cautious spending'

Amazon (AMZN) offered a downbeat outlook on domestic consumer spending, joining the likes of UPS (UPS) and 3M (MMM) amid growing concern that rising interest rates and tighter lending standards could lead to a recession in the US.

On an earnings call that discussed everything from artificial intelligence to slowdown concerns at Amazon Web Services, the e-commerce giant also flashed a warning about its longstanding retail business.

“The uncertain economic environment and ongoing inflationary pressures continue to be a factor and we believe, is continuing to drive cautious spending across consumers.” Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky said on the company’s earnings call on Thursday. “This means our customers are looking to stretch their budgets further, and are focused on value."

While the company grew overall net sales in North America by 11%, Amazon’s online store revenue of $51.10 billion fell by about $30 million from the same period the year prior.

Amazon isn’t the only company sounding the alarm, either. 3M, the maker of everything from Scotch Tape to Post-it-Notes sees weakness in "consumer-facing markets." Procter & Gamble calls its end customer a ‘more careful’ consumer that might be going as far as conserving paper towels. And UPS, a key contributor to the box-recession indicator, notes “disposable income is shifting away from goods to services."

In large part, economic data is in agreement, too. UPS noted many of its declines are in line with monthly retail sales. The latest report saw sales falling 1% in March, double what economists had feared. Data out from the Conference Board on Tuesday showed Consumer Confidence for the next six months hit its lowest levels since July 2022.

“While consumers’ relatively favorable assessment of the current business environment improved somewhat in April, their expectations fell and remain below the level which often signals a recession looming in the short term,” said Ataman Ozyildirim, senior director of economics at the Conference Board.

Boxes ready to be delivered are seen during Cyber Monday at the Amazon fulfilment centre in Robbinsville Township in New Jersey, U.S., November 28, 2022. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
Boxes ready to be delivered are seen during Cyber Monday at the Amazon fulfilment centre in Robbinsville Township in New Jersey, U.S., November 28, 2022. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz (Eduardo Munoz / reuters)

The Bureau of Economic Analysis' advance estimate of first quarter U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), showed growth but less than what was expected. And even under the hood, where real consumer spending rose 3.7%, some economists argue the outlook still isn't as rosy.

“Monthly data suggest that consumer spending has lost momentum over the past few months,” Jay Bryson Wells Fargo Chief Economist said in a note on Thursday. “Moreover, consumers are relying increasingly on credit and stockpiled cash to finance their purchases. These factors are not sustainable, in our view.”

“We continue to forecast that the U.S. economy slip into recession, which we expect will be of moderate severity, in the second half of the year.”

In other words, the economic data is a lagging indicator. Big retailers are telling a different story about what they’ve seen recently and what’s to come.

And as Miller Tabak managing director Matt Maley pointed out to Yahoo Finance Live, the market is already signaling something similar too.

“The stock market is a forward-looking enterprise,” Maley said. “When you see these stocks like Visa, Mastercard and the retail stocks trading lower, it tells me that they’re seeing that maybe that demand isn’t going to remain so strong, three-to-six months into the future.”

Josh is a reporter for Yahoo Finance.

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