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Last quarter, investors threw shares of Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) in their carts like half-priced cheese puffs, bidding up the shares, even though it was too soon to really call a turnaround. Reality may be starting to catch up to those who bought in over the past several months, and it could get worse.
Wal-Mart’s second-quarter income from continuing operations increased 5.7% to $4 billion, or $1.18 per share. Net sales increased 4.5% to $113.5 billion; without negative drag from currency exchange rates, sales would have been $115.7 billion.
The closely watched same-store sales figure here in the U.S. was 2.2%, reflecting both positive ticket and traffic numbers.
Still, analysts expected Wal-Mart to ring up more sales than it did; the consensus expectation was for comps to grow 2.7%, and Wal-Mart guided for 4% to 6% growth.
On a macro level, many pundits see Wal-Mart’s slower-than-expected sales figure reflecting a negative outlook for U.S. consumers. Granted, there are good reasons to be worried.
The economic recovery hasn’t exactly been robust, and public and private entities continue to lay off thousands of American workers. For example, Research in Motion (Nasdaq: RIMM ) is rumored to be starting to wave goodbye to about 3,000 workers this week, defense industry names like Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT ) may be forced to cut thousands of jobs due to the sequestration budget dilemma, and even states and counties are laying off workers.
You’d think such blows to American consumers’ discretionary income would have great potential to boost Wal-Mart’s fortunes -- it is a deep discounter after all -- but that simply wasn’t the case when recession hit hard several years ago. Wal-Mart has struggled terribly over the course of the ensuing years, failing to attract more customers, despite the fact that more Americans were trying to be frugal.
Somehow, more upscale discounters like Costco (Nasdaq: COST ) and rock-bottom dollar stores like Dollar Tree (Nasdaq: DLTR ) managed to pinch Wal-Mart at both the high and the low ends. Should the economy tip back into official recession, that could happen again.
Last but not least, rumors are swirling that the bribery investigation that’s still hanging over Wal-Mart could travel to countries beyond Mexico, and could extend to allegations of money laundering and tax evasion, too.
Wal-Mart’s simply not a shoo-in for a robust recovery here in the U.S. at this time, and the uncertainty from the bribery scandal makes the situation even worse. Leave shares of Wal-Mart on the shelf; like cheese puffs, they’re puffed too high with air, and may prove far more expensive than investors currently believe, as these elements play out.
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