Now more than ever, a comfortable retirement depends on secure, stable investments. Unfortunately, the right stocks for retirement won't just fall into your lap. In this series, I look at 10 measures to show what makes a great retirement-oriented stock.

No retailer on the planet compares to Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT). As the largest private employer in the world with more than 2 million workers, Wal-Mart is an essential component of the U.S. economy in many areas of the nation. Its size and economies of scale have transformed the retail landscape throughout America, with some ardent fans and many critics butting heads. But the stock hasn't always performed as well as the business. Is Wal-Mart a good investment? Below, we'll revisit how Wal-Mart does on our 10-point scale.

The right stocks for retirees
With decades to go before you need to tap your investments, you can take greater risks, weighing the chance of big losses against the potential for mind-blowing returns. But as retirement approaches, you no longer have the luxury of waiting out a downturn.

Sure, you still want good returns, but you also need to manage your risk and protect yourself against bear markets, which can maul your finances at the worst possible time. The right stocks combine both of these elements in a single investment.

When scrutinizing a stock, retirees should look for:

  • Size. Most retirees would rather not take a flyer on unproven businesses. Bigger companies may lack their smaller counterparts' growth potential, but they do offer greater security.
  • Consistency. While many investors look for fast-growing companies, conservative investors want to see steady, consistent gains in revenue, free cash flow, and other key metrics. Slow growth won't make headlines, but it will help prevent the kind of ugly surprises that suddenly torpedo a stock's share price.
  • Stock stability. Conservative retirement investors prefer investments that move less dramatically than typical stocks, and they particularly want to avoid big losses. These investments will give up some gains during bull markets, but they won't fall as far or as fast during bear markets. Beta measures volatility, but we also want a track record of solid performance as well.
  • Valuation. No one can afford to pay too much for a stock, even if its prospects are good. Using normalized earnings multiples helps smooth out one-time effects, giving you a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. Most of all, retirees look for stocks that can provide income through dividends. Retirees want healthy payouts now and consistent dividend growth over time -- as long as it doesn't jeopardize the company's financial health.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at Wal-Mart.


What We Want to See


Pass or Fail?

Size Market cap > $10 billion $212 billion Pass
Consistency Revenue growth > 0% in at least four of five past years 5 years Pass
  Free cash flow growth > 0% in at least four of past five years 4 years Pass
Stock stability Beta < 0.9 0.35 Pass
  Worst loss in past five years no greater than 20% (2.6%) Pass
Valuation Normalized P/E < 18 14.44 Pass
Dividends Current yield > 2% 2.3% Pass
  5-year dividend growth > 10% 16.5% Pass
  Streak of dividend increases >= 10 years 37 years Pass
  Payout ratio < 75% 29.4% Pass
  Total score   10 out of 10

Source: S&P Capital IQ. Total score = number of passes.

Since we looked at Wal-Mart last year, the company has kept its perfect 10-point score. Interestingly, though, free cash flow contracted by more than 15% in the past year, marking a new chink in the retail giant's armor.

Wal-Mart found itself in unfamiliar territory in recent years. Long considered the ultimate in low-cost retail, Wal-Mart suddenly came under attack from deep-discounter Family Dollar (NYSE: FDO) and its peers, which scored impressive growth and share-price gains during the recession as customers discovered the appeal of their more compact stores. At the same time, fellow big-box stores Target (NYSE: TGT) and Costco (Nasdaq: COST) catered to very slightly higher-end consumers who wanted a hint of luxury even in tough times, finding success there.

But now, Wal-Mart is returning to basics. The company has started to defend its old dominance as a leading discounter, even at the cost of some profits. The success of that approach showed itself in the just-concluded holiday season, soundly beating rival Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD) and forcing it to close 100 stores in an attempt to survive.

For retirees and other conservative investors, Wal-Mart's value is in shares that vastly outperform in down markets, even at the expense of giving up gains during bull phases. As investors come to appreciate the value of regular dividend income and share-price stability, you can expect Wal-Mart to come back into favor.

Keep searching
Finding exactly the right stock to retire with is a tough task, but it's not impossible. Searching for the best candidates will help improve your investing skills and teach you how to separate the right stocks from the risky ones.

If you really want to retire rich, no single stock will get the job done. Instead, you need to know how to prepare for your golden years. The Motley Fool's latest special report will give you all the details you need to get a smart investing plan going, and it also reveals three smart stocks for a rich retirement. But don't waste another minute -- click here and read it today.

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