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London CNN Business  — 

Are Americans still reaching for their wallets, even as high inflation forces households to contend with higher bills?

The fierce debate over whether the United States is in a recession could hinge on that question, sending economists and investors scrambling to unearth more data that provides clarity.

One important set of numbers arrives Wednesday morning, when the US Census Bureau is set to release its readout on retail sales for July.

Economists polled by Refinitiv expect to learn that sales rose just 0.1% compared to the previous month. In June, sales climbed 1% month-over-month and 8.4% compared to 2021.

But Bank of America thinks that “ostensible weakness” is a bit misleading. It believes any drop-off “was likely driven by the plunge in gas prices, which appears to have opened up the consumer wallet for spending in other categories.”

“Combined with softer-than-expected inflation, this should imply solid gains in real consumer spending in July,” its economists said in a recent note to clients.

Earnings from top retail chains on Tuesday bolstered the sense that the country’s shoppers are still spending. Walmart (WMT) said it expects earnings will fall in the second half of the year, but is predicting a smaller drop in profit than it had previously penciled in. Shares climbed more than 5%.

America’s biggest retailer has had to cut prices on items like clothing in order to clear out excess inventory as its customers shift their shopping habits.

“We expect inflation to continue to influence the choices that families make, and we’re adjusting to that reality so we can help them more,” CEO Doug McMillon said on a call with investors.

Even food preferences are changing, Walmart’s chief financial officer added.

“Instead of deli meats at higher price points, customers are increasing purchases of hot dogs as well as canned tuna or chicken,” he said.

But Walmart’s reputation as a bargain center positions it well as families opt to prioritize savings. Comparable sales at US stores grew 6.5%, “reflecting strong grocery sales at a higher average ticket size.”

Results from rival Target (TGT) that hit Wednesday morning weren’t as reassuring. Comparable sales rose 2.6% as customers bought food, beauty products and household essentials. Yet the company’s profit nosedived, dropping 90% from one year ago as discounting weighed on income.

Still, the company stuck with its annual guidance. Shares are down more than 3% in premarket trading.

The big picture: Retail sales are a key data point as the Federal Reserve weighs its next move. Minutes from the central bank’s latest meeting post later Wednesday.

News that the US economy added more than half a million jobs in July has supported the view that the Fed won’t ease up on its tough program of interest rate hikes any time soon. If the employment situation remains strong, spending stays solid and financial conditions continue to ease, policymakers will have greater confidence they can bring inflation to heel without triggering a sharp economic contraction.

Meme trades are having a late summer renaissance

It’s been a tough year for amateur investors, who piled into the market when it was hot and took a harsh beating on the way down.

But as some signs of optimism return, retail traders are once again showing love for the meme stocks and offbeat crypto coins they favored during easier times.

The latest: Shares of Bed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) surged 29% on Tuesday and are up another 22% in premarket trading on Wednesday. They’ve quadrupled in price so far this month, leaping from about $5 to more than $20 apiece.

The stock was the most traded among customers of the brokerage Fidelity on Tuesday, revealing intense interest from individual investors.

A so-called “short squeeze” is also feeding the extreme moves, as investors who bet that the company’s shares would fall are forced to buy back in so they can limit their losses.

“The ongoing equity rebound has drawn back the more speculative retail investors,” Marco Iachini and Giacomo Pierantoni of Vanda Research said in a recent note to clients.

Another sign that animal spirits are making a comeback? Dogecoin and other canine-related cryptocurrencies that were initially launched as a joke have gotten a big boost over the past week.

That said: US stocks have climbed for four consecutive weeks. If the momentum breaks, are retail traders prepared to dig in?

“With bearish sentiment predominant across the institutional investor spectrum and central bankers retaining a hawkish bias, the odds are that the latest meme stock mania may be a short-lived phenomenon,” the Vanda Research team warned.

Biden’s climate law lifts clean energy stocks

As President Joe Biden signed his sweeping health care and climate package into law, Wall Street was paying attention.

The $750 billion initiative is more than just a political victory for the White House. It also represents the largest climate investment in US history, and will slash US greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2030, according to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s office.

That reads as an opportunity for investors looking to cash in. Since the legislation was revived in late July, shares of companies that specialize in renewable energy and related infrastructure have jumped. Solar stocks have climbed almost 14%, double the gains logged by the broader S&P 500. The wind energy sector has seen more muted gains.

And yet: The effects of the new law will be nuanced, and some companies stand to accrue more benefits than others.

For example, while the legislation includes a $7,500 tax credit for electric vehicles, it comes with major caveats. Vehicles must now be assembled in the United States to qualify. There are also new requirements that the battery metals are either extracted or processed domestically or in a country that has a free trade deal with the United States.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents automakers like Ford, GM, Hyundai, Toyota and Volkswagen, says the package will sharply reduce the number of vehicles available for purchase in the country that are eligible for a credit, which could reduce consumer demand.

Up next

Lowe’s (LOW) and TJX (TJX) report results before US markets open. Bath & Body Works follows after the close.

Also today:

  • US retail sales for July arrive at 8:30 a.m. ET.
  • Minutes from the Federal Reserve’s last meeting post at 2 p.m. ET.

Coming tomorrow: Earnings from Kohl’s (KSS) and Ross Stores (ROST).