When Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) reported earnings last week, the stock gained more than 7% for the week and boosted the retailer’s year-to-date share price gain to nearly 41%.
The consensus price target on Walmart stock is $98.45 and among 33 analyst reports only 3 rated the stock as Underperform or Sell. Until Monday morning, that is, when Goldman Sachs analysts changed their rating from Buy to Hold while raising their price target from $91 to $100.
According to a report at CNBC, Goldman analyst Matthew Fassler wrote in a note to investors that because of Walmart’s “progress in growing earnings while investing in its business … the stock’s multiple has surged.” Walmart’s forward price/earnings (P/E) ratio of 20.92 is about 1.8% higher than the forward P/E of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and its 41% share price gain approaches 3x the S&P 500’s 15% return.
The Goldman call essentially means that Walmart’s stock is fully valued and, even though the stock may gain another 2.5% over the next 12 months, that is not enough to merit a Buy call.
Not every analyst agrees. Last Friday, BofA/Merrill Lynch raised its price objective from $100 to $120 and maintained the firm’s Buy rating on the stock. Analysts were positively impressed by Walmart’s U.S. same-store sales growth of 2.7% (of which about 30% came from online sales), well above the consensus forecast of 1.9% growth and Merrill Lynch’s forecast for 1.5% same-store growth.
Unlike Goldman, Merrill Lynch thinks “continued U.S. comp [same-store sales] and ecommerce sales momentum should support further P/E multiple expansion.” That statement assumes Walmart shares trade at 26x Merrill Lynch’s estimated fiscal year 2019 (which begins in February 2018) earnings per share of $4.60. That multiple is well above the 22x the firm expects from other retailers with good same-store sales growth.
So, is Walmart a half-empty glass — as Goldman thinks — or one that’s half full? Walmart’s share price gains this year have been outstanding and, like all things that can’t go on forever, the increases will end. Goldman says the run is over and Merrill Lynch gives it at least one more year.
Walmart shares traded down about 1.2% just before noon Monday at $96.24 in a 52-week range of $65.28 to $100.13.
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