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Wal-Mart profit rises, but outlook dims

Updated: February 21, 2013 9:28AM



NEW YORK — Wal-Mart Stores said Thursday that its fourth-quarter profit rose 8.6%. But higher gasoline prices, late tax refunds and the payroll tax increase have it wary about the coming year.

The company’s stock rose in pre-market trading Thursday.

Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., is considered an economic bellwether because the retailer accounts for nearly 10% of nonautomotive retail spending in the U.S.

Wal-Mart’s latest results, which cover the three months ended Jan. 31, show that gasoline prices and the payroll tax increase of 2 percentage points are shrinking the little disposable income that Wal-Mart shoppers have.

Investors were bracing for a subdued report after a Bloomberg story last week leaked an e-mail from a top executive characterizing the first two weeks of February as “a total disaster.”

Wal-Mart acknowledged in Thursday’s report that February started “slower than planned” but noted that it was largely due to the delay in tax refund checks.

For the current quarter, Wal-Mart expects revenue at stores open at least a year at its U.S. namesake business to be flat with last year. That represents a slowdown from the 1% increase in the fourth quarter.

The results come a little more than a year after Wal-Mart’s U.S. namesake business turned a corner by reemphasizing low prices and restocking stores with thousands of basic items that it had gotten rid of in an overzealous bid to reduce clutter.

During the third quarter of 2011, the division reversed nine straight quarters of declines in revenue at stores open at least a year, considered a key measure of a retailer’s health. The U.S. namesake business has now recorded six consecutive quarters of gains since the division rebounded.

But the fourth-quarter gain is below the 1.5% increase analysts polled by Thomson Reuters were expecting. Overall, revenue at stores open at least a year rose a modest 1.2%, including a 2.3% gain at Sam’s Clubs. Analysts had expected a 1.8% increase.

That growth pace has slowed in recent quarters.

Wal-Mart says it earned $5.6 billion, or $1.67 per share, in the quarter ended Jan. 31. That’s up from $5.16 billion, or $1.50 per share, a year earlier.

Net sales rose 3.9% to $127.1 billion.

Earnings topped estimates of $1.57 per share, but net sales fell short of the $127.8 billion estimate.

The company says it expects earnings per share to range from $1.11 per share to $1.16 per share for the first quarter. That’s below analysts’ expectations for a $1.18 per share estimate, according to FactSet.

For the year, Wal-Mart expects earnings per share between $5.20 and $5.40 per share. Analysts expect $5.38 per share, according to FactSet.



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