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August 1, 2012  Wed 8:10 AM CT

Too strong or too weak? Accelerating or declining? It's so hard to tell, especially because some really high-profile companies are missing numbers and others are skating through as if nothing negative is happening.

Today we saw one of the biggest disappointments of the era, Coach, and the weakness is all domestic. The radical decline from 10 percent comparisons to one and change comparisons takes my breath away.

It reminds me of the speech that Howard Schultz gave on his Starbucks call: He said it wasn't just his company that saw big weakness, but the companies run by some of his friends were seeing weakness as well. I should have put 2 and 2 together and thought Coach. But I didn't.

Taking our cue from Starbucks and Coach may make a ton of sense, but then how do we explain the strength in Whole Foods? All three are expensive. All three can be traded down from. But only Whole Foods seems to have withstood the high-end onslaught.

We heard whispers today that some of what ails Coach might be execution and when we hear from competitor Michael Kors we might be pleasantly surprised by the numbers, as surprised as we were to hear how well Under Armour's doing given its high price points.

Let's also not give Starbucks a free pass. Consider the curious case of Dunkin Brands. While the market seemed unenthused about Dunkin, I think that its cheaper but still high-quality coffee took share from Starbucks.

This could be my own bias, as my Starbucks is across the street from my Dunkin' Donuts, so I believe that the switch could be occurring. So while the confidence of America may be fractured, as Schultz said on the call, maybe that fracturing means more of America runs on Dunkin.

Of course, it's not just Coach, Starbucks, and Tiffany that have had a fall from investor grace because of June and July sales. Chipotle Mexican Grill told us the same thing in what was a very disappointing conference call. But let's get those mitigating factors at work again.

For example, you, unlike me, may not be a big fan of Taco Bell, but its same-store sales rocketed 15 percent while Chipotle downshifted from 12 percent to 8 percent. And Panera Bread, with a price point and a reputation for healthy eating similar to Chipotle, showed consistent earnings.

Oh, and while we won't know until later this week how bad or good July was according to individual retailers, the Market Vectors Retail (the retail ETF that I watch like a hawk--more on that later) tells you that it is flashing green, not red, so you better not jump too far off the consumer-spend bandwagon. logoThis was confirmed by the robust consumer-confidence number we saw yesterday, the best in five months. Although, of course, the Commerce Department released numbers recently that showed that household purchases have slowed to a year low.

Why don't we sow some more confusion? Armstrong World, the big flooring-and-ceiling-tile company, reported a miserable quarter yesterday and talked about construction spending being down across the board. Masco then reported that demand for kitchen and bath fixtures has also slowed. Both Armstrong and Masco have substantial European businesses, which were predictably awful, and Armstrong's business that was flagged as weak domestically seemed largely commercial.

There's no denying, however, that you felt worse about the housing boomlet and wanted to give it a little less credence. Until you consider that every homebuilder, and I mean literally every one, from Standard Pacific and Toll Brothers to D.R. Horton, PulteGroup, and Lennar, saw up numbers. The Case-Schiller index released yesterday (while already old because it's based on May numbers) saw consistent, albeit low-level, improvement, and USG said materials are stronger in the country.

You combine that with what Lumber Liquidators said last week when management  talked about very strong sales into housing, with Weyerhaeuser, which was totally upbeat about the home boomlet and with CSX, which told me that the housing recovery is gaining steam and you don't know who to believe.

The strong domestic numbers from Whirlpool last week and the terrific tool numbers from the American side of Stanley Black & Decker earlier this month tell me to go against Masco and Armstrong and think that maybe they are executing poorly. One look at the HGX, another closely followed indicator showing homebuilding stocks, makes you be a little more sanguine about this most important sector.

It's so case-by-case as to be unnerving. Ford and General Motors seem so sickly that they should be shot. Until you hear that they could be building 14.9 million cars--the most built in the U.S. in years. And judging by the selling prices, they are not being discounted. Obviously the foreign sales--particularly Europe, but also in GM's case, China, and in Ford's case, Latin America--are the culprits throwing us off the scent.

Sometimes, it is case within case. At the beginning of the month, Cummins, the fantastic truck engine company, preannounced a gigantic shortfall that tempered enthusiasm for the trucking cycle, and I know made me less enthusiastic about one of the best bull markets out there. But then today, the company announced the actual earnings, and they were fairly strong--stronger than they were when the company preannounced. While some of it was share-take, you couldn't really deny that Cummins is performing better than it was a month ago, which is why the stock has rallied more than 6 points.

Ironically, the confusion over domestic strength of the consumer may be precisely what is behind this stock market's resilience. When we get a number that shows the trends are going all Starbucks or Chipotle or Coach, the money rotates into the high yielders and the dividend payers, such as Pfizer or Merck or Eli Lilly or Altria, AT&T, and Verizon. But when we get confirmation of strength from Whole Foods or an Under Armour, we rotate right back to high-end consumer growth.

That's why we never seem to just give up the ghost. That's why, on down days like today, we can wonder if the Fed is taking its cue from the downbeat numbers and is concocting a plan. Or whether things are so bad that we should just stick with AT&T and Verizon or Duke Energy and Dominion Resources and say to heck with the Fed, because rates are so low they don't matter as competition anyway.

No matter what, one thing's for sure: The confusion is not resulting in selling. It's just resulting in rotation that's never ending in a positive, not negative, sort of way.

Disclosure: Cramer's charitable trust is long CMI.
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