How people are spending their money is best indicator for future of the economy
WILL Europe slip into recession this year or will the continent manage to shrug off all the worries about the single currency and keep the economy growing?
Most economists appear to believe recession is on the cards but admit the data coming from the main economies is often contradictory and difficult to read.
When this happens, it is often useful to ignore the stats and take a look at what people are doing with their money.
One simple way of doing this is to see how retailers that cater for the great swathe of middle-class shoppers are doing. The answer is, not as badly as you might expect.
Despite all the closures, the dire warnings about changing habits and a credit squeeze, many retailers are doing very well indeed. It must be said that year-on-year comparisons are flattered by last year's terrible weather but there is still reason to hope that the European retail landscape is seeing a shake-out rather than collapse.
This is not the case in Ireland, of course, where many good shops are undoubtedly being swept away with the dross.
Bloomberg reported this week that shares of companies focused on discretionary spending, such as Marks & Spencer and its famous chocolate puddings, were outperforming the market right now.
Robert Griffiths, a London-based equity strategist at Royal Bank of Scotland, says stocks like M&S historically are "early movers" that start to outperform as shareholders improve their economic assessments.
"When investors spot signs of stabilisation, this is an area of the market that's early to rally," Mr Griffiths added.
This can be seen in the Bloomberg European Consumer Cyclical Index, which includes retailers and car makers and which is outperforming the Bloomberg European Consumer Non-Cyclical Index by a significant margin these days. The former has gained 11pc since mid-December, while the latter has gained just 3pc.
Mr Griffiths puts the differential down to better-than-forecast retail sales last month and a less-than-estimated contraction in euro-area services and manufacturing output.
He cites examples such as SuperGroup, which sells trendy clothes, and said in December that sales rose 9.3pc over a 12-month period.
It goes without saying that the next month or two will be dire for many retailers. The banks tend to wait until the sales are over and stock has been sold before swooping on the retailers who have no future.
In some cases, such as lingerie maker La Senza, the banks were so impatient that they moved before Christmas, but history tells us that most failure will come in the dark days of late January and February.
The interesting question is the underlying story. 'Investors Chronicle' suggested this month that the British retail sector might be facing a 20-year slump like Germany's, where there has been no increase in retail sales in two decades as Germans simply stopped going shopping.
The magazine believes that a dearth of new products to rival must-haves, such as ipods and flat-screen televisions, will add to the problem.
These are strong arguments and worth considering. But the beauty of retail stocks is that we can all call into a shop, browse and come to a conclusion about investment opportunities.
Any man who usually just pops into Gap twice a year for his clothes could have told you that the store was losing its mojo about three years ago.
Any new parent who had a child in the past decade could have told you much the same about Mothercare and issued their very own sell recommendation.
While everybody has their own favourites, here are a few retailers that have stores in Ireland and that even the 'Investors Chronicle' likes, despite the worries about changing spending habits.
First up is JD Sports, which the magazine likes for dividends and balance sheet reasons and despite a recent dip in sales.
Other retailers to get the nod include car accessory retailer Halfords, which has a "very tempting" dividend.
A final recommendation is WH Smith, which is expanding into travel locations like airports and railways where there's less competition.
While I would have my doubts about Halfords, which seems to me to be a soul-less experience with often ill-informed staff, the other two retailers seem to me to offer a good service that may well make them worth a punt.