Wal-Mart, Kohl's, Nordstrom Sales Drop

Morning Business Memo…

Some of the biggest names in shopping had a tough first quarter as cautious consumers reduced spending. Wal-Mart, Nordstrom and Kohl's all reported a small decline in sales, largely because of the rise in payroll taxes that took a bite out of household spending. Affluent consumers may be enjoying the benefits of the soaring stock market and rising home values, but many other Americans are struggling to maintain their living standards. Things are even worse at JC Penney, which reported a large loss on a 16 percent plunge in revenue. It marks the fifth straight quarter that Penney posted big declines.

The latest reading on consumer confidence comes out today from The University of Michigan. Most recent surveys show confidence is higher than it was during the recession but is not back to the levels of six or seven years ago: "I think the consumer remains pretty cautious. They are willing to spend but in a reserved manner," says Niraj Shah, CEO of the home goods website Wayfair. "We saw when things sort of went down in 2008 the price point of goods that people would buy decreased and to be honest that hasn't really increased much since then." While many brick and mortar retailers are still facing a decline in revenues, Shah says "the big accelerant is that they are being more and more comfortable buying online."

The price of gold is down again this morning - the seventh daily loss in a row. Gold has dropped nearly 5 percent this week as investors go elsewhere for returns. Fears about rising inflation have proved unfounded. Yesterday a Labor Department survey reported that the cost of living dropped last month largely because of falling energy prices.

Tough times at Dell. Earnings plunged 79 percent in the latest quarter as sales dropped 2 percent. Dell is suffering from the switch away from PCs and desktop computers to smartphones and tablets.

Big banks are looking to pull back from Bloomberg's instant messaging platforms. Citigroup is banning traders in its foreign exchange division from accessing internal chat groups on their Bloomberg terminals, says the Financial Times. The decision is the latest sign of unease after Bloomberg gave its reporters access to proprietary financial data on its terminals. Fearful of online snooping, some big financial firms may rely more on their own services, and seek to renegotiate their contracts with Bloomberg.

Bill Gates is back on top. For the first time since 2007 he's the world's richest person with a fortune valued at $72.7 billion, according to Bloomberg. Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, regained the top spot after the software company's shares reached a five-year high. Microsoft is up 28 percent so far this year. Second on the wealthy list is the Mexican telecommunications billionaire, Carlos Slim.

Richard Davies Business Correspondent ABC News Radio abcnews.com Twitter: daviesabc