Wal-Mart's earnings today point to slow growth in the U.S. economy in 2013

02/21/2013 4:13 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

I’m much more interested right now in Wal-Mart as an economic indicator than I am in Wal-Mart as a stock to invest in.

Let’s take the indicator apart, shall we?

Wal-Mart (WMT) shares are up 2.6% as of 1:45 p.m. New York time today.

Before the market open in New York this morning, the company reported fourth quarter earnings for the fiscal 2013 year that ended in January 2013 of $1.67 a share, 10 cents a share above Wall Street projections and an 11.3% increase from the fourth quarter of fiscal 2012. Revenue climbed a relatively meager 3.9% year over year to $127.92 billion versus the $127.76 billion Wall Street estimate.

That good news was balanced by very modest guidance for the first quarter of 2013. Comparable store sales, which grew by 1% in the fourth quarter, will be flat in the first quarter. That’s not unexpected after Bloomberg published Wal-Mart emails last week that called February sales the worst in the last seven years. For the first quarter, the company told analysts to expect earnings of $1.11 to $1.16 a share versus the $1.18 Wall Street estimate. For the full fiscal 2014 year that ends in January 2014 Wal-Mart projected earnings of $5.20 to $5.40 a share versus the Wall Street consensus of $5.37.

I detected a little bit of whistling-past-the-graveyard in some of the company’s comments, however. "We are confident that our low prices will continue to resonate, as families adjust to a reduced paycheck and increased gas prices," Wal-Mart U.S, president Bill Simon said. The reduced paycheck remark was a reference to the end of the Social Security payroll tax cut of 2 percentage points as part of the deal that ended the fiscal cliff crisis. The end to that tax cut meant an immediate decrease in take-home pay that had a big effect on Wal-Mart customers.

So why did the stock go up today? I think what tipped the balance between the better than expected results from last quarter and the weak guidance for the rest of calendar 2013 was the company’s announcement of an 18% increase in the annual dividend to $1.88 a share. On an annual basis that pushed the yield on Wal-Mart shares to 2.7% on the current price. That’s not a terrible—or terribly attractive yield—but I think the market is taking it today as a vote of confidence from management.

Full disclosure: I don’t own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this post in my personal portfolio. When in 2010 I started the mutual fund I manage, Jubak Global Equity Fund http://jubakfund.com/ , I liquidated all my individual stock holdings and put the money into the fund. The fund may or may not now own positions in any stock mentioned in this post. The fund did not own shares of any company mentioned in this post as of the end of September. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of September see the fund’s portfolio at http://jubakfund.com/about-the-fund/holdings/

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