Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) got a lot of attention this holiday shopping season, but not in the way they were hoping. Even as they made headlines for opening on Thanksgiving Day, a photo of bins at a Wal-Mart store collecting canned goods from employees to be given to other impoverished employees called attention to the low (some would say, "starvation") wages Wal-Mart pays.
Add to this some high-profile Twitter skirmishes and Internet memes implying that taxpayers are footing the bill for Wal-Mart's low wages, and the world's largest retailer looked less like Santa and more like Scrooge.
In light of all this, should you dump your Wal-Mart shares? And what if you want exposure to the retail sector, but with a clear conscience? Does any other company stack up?
Check emotion at the door
There's no shortage of businesses that make their money in ways that might turn an investor's stomach. Altria (formerly Philip Morris) is just one example. In some cases, these stocks underperform the market, but often they produce outstanding returns. Here's a sampling of companies you might find unsavory and their performance over the last year:
It just goes to show that one's moral compass isn't the best tool in an investor's arsenal. So should you avoid buying shares of a company you detest?
Well, ultimately that's up to you, but I'm a big proponent of the theory that an investor should be proud to own the businesses he or she holds stock in. And you really can't be proud of a business you find icky.
Ideally, an investor keeps emotion out of picking stocks to avoid making emotional, as opposed to rational, decisions about trading. And if every time you look at a stock, a shiver runs up your spine, you're having an emotional reaction. Which means you may end up selling the stock too soon or ignoring a gut instinct to sell by misidentifying it as your usual aversion to the stock. Bottom line: if a company makes you sick, stay far away from its products and its stock.
Who measures up
Okay, but what about Wal-Mart? There's no question it's an investment that's done pretty well over the past decade, especially during the recession--but as you can see, lately it's not only been underpaying its employees, but underperforming the market too:
Is any other retailer any better? What about rival Target (NYSE:TGT)? Same global reach, same strong brand identity, similar dividend (2.7% to Wal-Mart's 2.4%) and they pay their workers better...right?
Well, to be honest, no. Wal-Mart gets more attention in this regard only because of its size (its 1.4 million US employees dwarf Target's 361,000), but Target isn't much better in terms of income disparity between the top and the bottom. Target's CEO Gregg Steinhafel "only" makes 645 times the salary of its average worker, compared to 796 times the average worker's salary for Wal-Mart's CEO Michael Duke.
Both companies pay most of their retail staff (Target calls them "Team Members," while Wal-Mart calls 'em "Associates") minimum wage. And Target was likewise open on Thanksgiving Day. So what's an investor to do?
There is a third way
One retailer stands out as a model of pro-employee policy: Costco (NASDAQ:COST). In stark contrast to Target and Wal-Mart, Costco's CEO Craig Jelinek only makes about 48 times the pay of its average worker. And that worker makes a minimum of $11.50 an hour, thanks to Costco's commitment to paying livable wages to all of its employees. Costco has also publicly come out in favor of an increased federal minimum wage.
Costco isn't just employee-friendly, but shareholder-friendly too, having repurchased nearly $2 billion worth of shares since 2010, and offering a 1.1% dividend. It's also outperformed the overall market as well as Wal-Mart and Target over the past five years:
The Foolish bottom line
Any time you look at a business you own stock in and you don't like what you see, whether for moral or financial reasons, you should consider selling. And if you decide to sell Wal-Mart, Costco makes an attractive alternate investment. To paraphrase a well-known slogan: "All of the taste, none of the guilt!"