(Adds that Coach beat earnings estimates on a 15% sales increase in its most recent fiscal quarter.)
BOSTON ( TheStreet) -- Shares of consumer-discretionary companies, which sell products such as cars, clothing and hotels, are on a roll this year, as investors are anticipating higher spending after a couple of years of household austerity.
Friday's strong jobs report coupled with continued signs of an improving U.S. economy have supported the view that consumers will begin to spend on products that make life easier or help them feel better about themselves. And families are just now starting to take on debt again.
Indicative of that, consumer-discretionary stocks are up 8.2% through Feb. 3 this year and 25% since a cyclical low Oct. 3, according to Standard & Poor's.S&P's analysts recommend "overweighting" the sector, as its economists are forecasting U.S. GDP growth of 2% this year and a healthy 2.3% increase in consumer spending. The benchmark S&P 500 has gained 7% this year, the best opening advance for the index since its 14% rise at the start of 1987, S&P reports. And that news, in and of itself, gives consumers even more confidence that they can afford to spend, as they see their 401(k) retirement accounts and investment portfolio finally start to fatten after 2011's paltry returns. The top-five performing consumer-discretionary stocks are all auto industry players, led by Tata Motors (TTM), India's largest carmaker, up a whopping 52% this year. And 10 of the top 13 leaders are either car companies or industry suppliers. The jump in automakers' shares is in anticipation of booming sales in emerging markets, as well as strong sales in the U.S., where the auto fleet is aged and decrepit. The average age of a U.S. car is a record 11.1 years and that means consumers will have to start trading in their beater and buy something new, Standard & Poor's MarketScope Advisor said. So the auto market is seen as a can't-miss if the economy improves as the year goes on. Also hot are luxury-goods purveyors, such as Coach (COH - Get Report). But in a surprise, the century-old, middle-class merchant, department store chain JCPenney (JCP - Get Report) is also having a great showing, gaining 17% this year. Even baby boomers' favorite fantasy vehicle manufacturer, motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson (HOG - Get Report), is back in top gear, rising 19% this year. Here is a sampling of 10 consumer-discretionary stocks from various industrieswith increases of 17% or more this year: