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SELL-OFF POINTS TO SHAKY TIME FOR RETAILERS

Consumer confidence is at its highest level in five years, but executives at retailing concerns aren't sharing in that upbeat mood.

According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, corporate insiders have been selling stock at an increasing clip throughout the retailing sector. CDA-Investnet, a market-research firm that follows insider activity, reports that several retailing companies had insiders selling in March, making it one of the most active selling groups in the stock market.The selling comes at a difficult time for the domestic retailing sector. Even as consumer confidence soars, the economic numbers indicate rough roads ahead. Consumer credit-card debt continues to rise faster than income growth, and signs of economic slowing likely will put the pinch on wallets, economists say.

"I think consumer spending is going to slow to 1.5 percent to 2 percent (growth) in real terms as we head into a slower growth economy this year," says Mickey Levy, chief financial economist at Nations-Banc Capital Markets in New York. "And the big swing will be in retail spending. Big-ticket items will suffer most, but clothing and other consumption items will also feel the slowdown."

Indeed, some analysts believe the sector already is feeling the slowdown. Intense competition has squeezed prices, reduced margins and made profit growth difficult to maintain, analysts say. And fiscal first-quarter numbers, which companies will release in the next few weeks, likely will reflect weak shopping activity. (Many retailers' quarters end Sunday.)

"I don't want to say that things have come to a screeching halt, but we've really seen a slowdown that started last quarter and really has yet to pick up," says Janet Man-gano, retail analyst at Burn-ham Securities in New York. "The first quarter is usually not strong in sales or profits for retailers, but this quarter looks wretched. Instead of small profits, we could see no profits for a lot of these companies."