Wal-Mart vs. Nordstrom

Ding! That's the bell for Round One.

As Fool Rick Munarriz explained, yesterday's earnings reports provided some insight into what shoppers preferred over the holidays. Indeed, the fight between the luxury and discount retailers for your dollar was an epic bout.

Target (NYSE: TGT  ) landed the first punch, reporting a 21% rise in quarterly net income. That was followed by a body blow from Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) , whose year-over-year quarterly profits rose by 11%. But it was Nordstrom (NYSE: JWN  ) that delivered the haymaker, reporting a 74% rise in income for the fourth quarter.

Indeed, Nordstrom appears in fighting shape. The luxury retailer said full fiscal 2003 earnings jumped to $242.8 million from $161.3 million during 2002, a 51% rise. Same-store sales rose 9.1% in December, 8.7% in January, and 4.3% for all of fiscal 2003 -- the retailer's best annual performance in 10 years.

What we don't know is what investors will think of the results, or whether they will favor the discounters over the high-end crowd. What should they do? Grab a ringside seat and let's see how Wal-Mart, the heavyweight among the discounters, stacks up against Nordstrom.

Wal-Mart says net income will rise to between $2.34 and $2.38 per share, or at least a 15% improvement over last year's $2.03. At the average guidance, or $2.36, the shares trade for roughly 25 times anticipated profits. Whew, spendy for a discounter, barely within spitting distance of its growth targets.

Would you believe the luxury retailer is cheaper? Nordstrom predicts 2004 net income will come in between $2.02 and $2.08 per share, for an improvement of at least 14%. Splitting the difference, at $2.05, makes Nordstrom's forward price-to-earnings roughly 19 -- a healthy premium but still cheaper than Wal-Mart.

Does Nordstrom take the title belt? Not exactly. Being more closely valued to its earnings growth may mean it dances around the ring a little faster than Wal-Mart, but it may not pack the same punch for investors. Let's take a look at cash flow.

The Bentonville Bruiser delivers a wallop here, creating $5.8 billion in free cash flow for all of 2003. But this is no secret weapon. Investors value Wal-Mart at 44 times its unencumbered moolah.

So this is where the lean and mean kid from Seattle delivers the knockout blow, right? Wrong. Nordstrom failed to publish a cash flow statement with earnings. It didn't even include a balance sheet. How lame. Management says it has historically only published its income statement until the other numbers were audited, but I don't buy it and you shouldn't either.

So the end result is that we can't call a winner. Though the crowd is booing us, this bout has been suspended until Nordstrom provides us proper information in its 10-K SEC filing.

Looking for free cash flow contenders? So is Tom Gardner. TryMotley Fool Hidden Gemsrisk-free for 30 days.

Motley Fool contributor Tim Beyers was a sports reporter for six years but he never covered a boxing match. He has no stake in any of the companies mentioned here.


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