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Maven: Retail Reports Lay Easter Eggs

The business media have gone headline-happy again. Look deeper.
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The Business Press Maven was deep in philosophical contemplation this morning when news about retail sales hit the wires. That's when I turned from spiritual musings to the sudden urge to go on Noogie Patrol. I wanted to rap my knuckles on the heads of the business media, but with philosophical undertones. Here's the philosophy:

Dude, don't ever run to invest money off the first headlines you see on an economic number. I'm not even talking about the big issue of how these numbers are often revised. (

Check out my now-famous limerick on the issue of revisions.) I'm talking about how the need for speed combined with the severe lack of real-world business experience in the business media spells instant mistakes.

So there I was, rapt in thought, when headlines about retail sales started to stream across my screen. "

Retail Sales Stronger Than Expected

," blurted


. "

Retail Sales Up Significantly in March

," the

Associated Press

screamed. I let my fingers do the running from those cub reporters at the wire services to the big boys and girls at

The Wall Street Journal

, which only offered

more of the same

TheStreet Recommends

in its lead: "U.S. retail sales climbed in March above expectations and demand for the prior month was revised much higher, signaling consumer spending and the economy aren't as weak as believed."

And so, an instant after the numbers' release, it was decreed! Time to gobble up retail stocks, right? Not so fast.


, in its infinite lack of wisdom, yelled in its headline that retail sales were stronger than expected. But, uh, it didn't mention the important fact -- a qualifying fact, in fact -- that the early Easter added to last month's shopping total, just as its absence will detract from this month's. All in all, a zero-sum game -- but important to mention if you are going to declare this month much stronger.

You know what they say: Easter today, gone tomorrow.

Anyhow, in the second sentence of its story,


does point out that excluding autos, sales were a bit smaller than expected. Which leads the Maven to ask, why the excited headline? Most readers don't look past it. Plus, a headline is supposed to reflect the reality of the article. In terms of reality -- or


evolving version of it -- the very next, or


, sentence said that excluding gasoline, sales were up only 0.4% in March, which is also fairly lame.

And fairly lame is fairly far from "Stronger Than Expected."

I know that people might not always read past a headline, especially busy stock traders. But you can see why you should, right? Because apparently, some headline writers -- yeah, I'm talking to you -- don't read past the first line of the article they're heading.


Associated Press

, which used the words "Up Significantly" in its headline, did deign to mention Easter right in the lead. It also mentioned how warm weather helped "put consumers in a buying mode." I'll spare y'all

the barbed riff on the business media, retailing and weather.

The one thing I know, however, is that if you are writing about the benefits of weather in March

during a monsoon

that has engulfed the Northeast in April, then to be fair, accurate and all that other quaint old stuff, you should at least caution that sales might suffer from said inclement weather in April.

Never mind all that common sense. The

Associated Press

is busy making big claims: "The strength in retail sales should relieve worries that slumping home prices and rising energy costs could cause a serious cutback in consumer spending."

As The Business Press Maven's 10 year-old daughter is fond of saying: "Whatever."

The Business Press Maven himself formed a schoolgirl's dismissive "W" with his fingers (it stands for "whatever," to translate for those of you without the benefit of having a fourth-grade girl in your house)

when Steve Case announced his plan, as part of his new company, to completely transform the way the credit-card business works. The coverage, as I noted, did not mention an important fact that puts the current effort in context: Several years ago, Case announced that he would change the way the health care information business works and was just getting to the point where he had a workable Web site going.

Well, this week, he


a workable Web site going. But guess what? Case invented WebMD. (The Business Press Maven used to be a holder but unfortunately is no longer.) The interesting thing, though, is that in profiling Case and his new (if long-in-coming endeavor),

The New York Times

does not mention

the recently announced credit-card endeavor.

The point here is that Case has proven he can build exactly one business and sell it brilliantly just before it collapses. But a professed business strategy of remaking various industries is grandiose, even for an entrepreneur. Case also might be unfocused, stretched thin and all those other things that help define his current effort. So if you are reading about health care, think about credit cards. And if you are reading about credit cards, think about health care.

Oh, and if you are reading those first articles about economic numbers such as retail sales, be careful. There could be an Easter egg or two in there not being mentioned.

At the time of publication, Fuchs had no positions in any of the stocks mentioned in this column.

A journalist with a background on Wall Street, Marek Fuchs has written the County Lines column for The New York Times for the past five years. He also contributes regular breaking news and feature stories to many of the paper's other sections, including Metro, National and Sports. Fuchs was the editor-in-chief of, a financial Web site twice named "Best of the Web" by Forbes Magazine. He was also a stockbroker with Shearson Lehman Brothers in Manhattan and a money manager. He is currently writing a chapter for a book coming out in early 2007 on a really embarrassing subject. He lives in a loud house with three children. Fuchs appreciates your feedback;

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to send him an email.