Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) continues to show considerable strength, despite signs of a worsening economy -- or perhaps because of them.
The discount giant's fourth-quarter net income increased 4% to $4.1 billion, or $1.02 per share. Revenue increased 8% to $106.3 billion. Same-store sales increased by 2.1%, including fuel; without fuel, they increased 1.7% in the U.S. during the quarter.
One bright spot jumps out from the company's press release: the whopping 18.8% increase in the international segment's sales. Foreign exposure can be a boon -- just ask McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) , where January comps got a boost from appetites overseas.
Wal-Mart expects earnings between $0.70 and $0.74 per share in the first quarter, and between $3.30 per share and $3.43 per share for the entire year. Wal-Mart isn't downplaying the grim economic environment right now, although it does intend to capitalize on its price-cutting competitive advantage. In the company's statement, President and CEO Lee Scott said the economy remains "a critical factor" this year, and acknowledged that consumers were watching their wallets in January. He also said that Wal-Mart plans to "continue to strengthen our price leadership around the world."
During the last couple of months, I've found my long-held bearish views on Wal-Mart softening, at least for the near term. Times are tough for many consumers -- even higher-income shoppers who might have boosted their spending with home equity loans, or bought too expensive a house -- and Wal-Mart's certainly known for rock-bottom low prices. Of course, this type of environment favors rivals like Costco (Nasdaq: COST ) or Target (NYSE: TGT ) , too.
In the long run, I believe that Wal-Mart still has work to do. However, the company appears willing to evolve, given a changing consumer landscape. For right now, though, it's arguably most at home in a penny-pinching economic climate. After several years of economic largesse and consumer excess, the discount giant seems to be back in its element -- for now, at least.