Why investors are fixated on just one number this afternoon

Peter Spence
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Investor attention is focused on this afternoon's US retail sales data (Source: Getty)

It's a pretty sparse calendar for traders today, and one data point stands out head and shoulders above the rest.

US retail sales numbers will be released at 1.30pm, and they'll help to decode a pretty messy picture.

Their strength will give an indication of the strength of the US economy, now that it's clear of the worst of the weather. Analysts at HSBC expect sales "to turn in a solid performance, as households continued to make up for spending that was delayed during the winter".

Analysts are expecting to see that retail sales grew by just 0.4 per cent this April, down from March's thumpingly high 1.1 per cent increase.

Reaction to the report will be key. If the data is too strong, market participants may expect the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates, tightening monetary policy sooner than expected, and we could see stocks fall as a result.

Too weak, and investors may suspect that there is something more fundamentally wrong with the US economy than just a spell of bad weather. The term traders use to refer to the number they want is the "Goldilocks" figure - not too hot, and not too cold.

Other indices for April have been fairly bullish, but Societe Generale suggest that falling auto-dealer revenues have likely capped any advances in retail sales. They note that motor vehicle manufacturers reported a 2.1 per cent fall in unit sales during April.

Excluding automobiles, economists are forecasting a 0.6 per cent rise in retail sales, an advanced slightly weaker than March's 0.7 per cent growth.