Wal-Mart Stores (WMT 1.22%) doesn't have a great reputation. This primarily stems from the poor treatment of its employees. Due to consistent negative press and a bad image, Wal-Mart has made a key decision that has the potential to positively impact its image in the future.
Let's not get too excited, though. It's clear that it would take a lot of hard work and many years for Wal-Mart to become loved by most Americans. However, Wal-Mart is taking a step in the right direction.
While the initiative to spend $250 billion on American products over the next decade has been in place since early 2013, it didn't become big news until Mike Rowe of the television show Dirty Jobs appeared on a Wal-Mart commercial during the Winter Olympics. This led to much drama, including hatred geared toward Rowe, followed by Rowe supporters stepping in to defend him via his Facebook page.
All of this is interesting news, and the overall story is entertaining, but what does it mean from an investing perspective?
Bringing manufacturing back to the United States
The United States is now considered a service economy as opposed to a manufacturing economy. This is largely due to the Far East, where workers are paid much lower wages to manufacture products. Despite these trends, Wal-Mart will be bringing jobs back to the United States.
Contrary to popular belief, roughly two-thirds of Wal-Mart products are already made, sourced, and grown in the United States. In order to spend $250 billion on American products over the next decade, Wal-Mart will increase what it already buys of American manufactured goods, source "new to Walmart" American manufactured goods, and reshare the manufacturing of goods it currently buys by facilitating and accelerating the efforts of its suppliers.
This is clearly a public relations campaign. The likely goal for Wal-Mart is to improve its image. If it can improve its image among consumers, then this will likely to lead to traffic and sales gains, which would in turn interest more investors. That said, if you're looking for an immediate, or even medium-term, improvement related to this initiative, then you might be disappointed.
Wal-Mart reported a 21% profit decline in its fourth quarter on a year-over-year basis, citing higher taxes and tighter credit as two of the key culprits for the poor performance. On the other hand, it raised its annual dividend by 2% to $1.92 per share from $1.88 per share.
If you're going to invest in Wal-Mart, then you should expect the same story to play out over and over again. The stock will suffer small, temporary hits when bad news comes out, but Wal-Mart will then use its enormous capital advantages to increase shareholder returns or to reinvest in a growth area in the business (i.e. small-box stores or Walmart to Go). This will then drive the stock price higher. In the end, you're really looking at a dividend investment.
If Wal-Mart can fix its image, then this could act as a future growth catalyst. But this will be very difficult to achieve, and it should have zero impact on the stock price in the near future. If you're looking for a dividend investment in this space, then there are two other options.
Target (TGT 3.34%) currently yields an impressive 3.1%. However, without knowing the full cost impact of the data breach, this would be a dangerous dividend investment at this time.
Costco Wholesale (COST 1.10%) only offers a dividend yield of 1.1%, which is considerably lower than Wal-Mart's and Target's. On the other hand, it's growing the fastest, it maintains a positive image, and there is no data breach to worry about.
The Foolish takeaway
Wal-Mart is likely making a wise move by bringing manufacturing jobs back to the United States. This should lead to at least some improvement for the company's image. That said, there's a lot of image repair necessary for the massive retailer, and this would likely take a long time to play out. In other words, it should have no impact on the company's underlying performance or stock price in the near future.
If you're looking for a dividend payment without having to worry about massive negative publicity, then you might want to dig deeper on Costco. Please do your own research prior to making any investment decisions.