Nobody loves a well-reasoned trade more than I do. Sometimes, though, what seems like obvious logic ends up yielding disappointing results.

Ultra-bargain-store stocks have enjoyed a year-long rally. Stores like 99 Cents Only Stores (NYSE:NDN), Dollar Tree (NASDAQ:DLTR), Family Dollar Stores (NYSE:FDO), and even bargain giant Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) have cashed in on the trend. Look at their returns over the past year:


1-Year Return

99 Cents Only Stores


Dollar Tree


Family Dollar Stores




S&P 500


Source: Yahoo! Finance.

Not bad, huh?

You know the purported reasoning behind the picks: The average consumer is strapped and looking to stretch their shopping dollar. But have these companies actually earned their rallies with better results, or did assumptions override reality?

Are earnings following suit?
The question I was curious about was whether these companies were actually benefiting from the struggling economy. Everybody loves a low price, but it's not like a six-pack of tube socks and a 99-cent picture frame suddenly become must-have items just because money is tight.

To check, I looked at how each company's net income over the past 12 months compared to its earnings from the previous year. Here's what I found:


Year-Over-Year Earnings Growth

99 Cents Only Stores (NDN)


Dollar Tree (DLTR)


Family Dollar Stores (FDO)


Wal-Mart (WMT)


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's. *Reflects loss of $5.8 million versus profit of $5.7 million in year-ago period.

So much for the stellar growth I hoped to see. At least on the bottom line, none of these companies have really proven to be growth stars during the darkness of a recession. They're not exactly disasters -- except for 99 Cents Only Stores -- but I don't think their results justify the huge jumps in their stock prices.

Sure, you can argue they were all undervalued a year ago. But given how much attention they've gotten lately, it's more likely that they're overvalued now. Once the market finally figures out these companies aren't backing up their stocks' gains with a boosted bottom line, investors may want to get a refund on their shares in a hurry.

For more on recession investing, read:

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.