Has the Turnaround at Wal-Mart Really Taken Hold?

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) reported third-quarter fiscal 2016 results before markets opened Tuesday morning. The retail giant posted diluted earnings per share (EPS) of $1.03 on total revenues of $117.41 billion, which includes membership fees in Sam’s Club. In the same period a year ago, Wal-Mart reported EPS of $1.15 on revenues of $119 billion. Third-quarter results also compare to the Thomson Reuters consensus estimates for $0.98 EPS and revenue of $117.79 billion.

U.S. third-quarter same-store sales, both including and excluding fuel sales, rose 1.5% at the company’s supercenter and discount stores. Same-store sales in the company’s Sam’s Club stores were up 0.4% excluding fuel and down 3.3% including fuel sales. Same-store sales at the Neighborhood Market stores rose approximately 8% in the quarter, and total U.S. net sales rose 1.4% for the quarter.

Wal-Mart narrowed its full-year EPS forecast from a prior range of $4.40 to $4.70 to a new range of $4.50 to $4.65. For the third quarter the company raised its EPS forecast from a prior range of $0.93 to $1.05 to a new range of $1.40 to $1.55. The new forecast includes an expected currency exchange headwind of $0.16 per share, compared with a negative impact of $0.15 per share in the third quarter. Wal-Mart continues to expect relatively flat total sales growth for the year and said that, without the negative impact of currency exchange rates, full-year sales would have grown about 3%.

The consensus estimate for full-year EPS is currently $4.51, down from $5.07 posted in fiscal year 2015.

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Wal-Mart’s CEO said:

We’re pleased with the continued sales growth in Walmart U.S. and in our international business. Strong traffic and our fifth consecutive quarter of positive comps in Walmart U.S. stores show we are taking the right steps to win with customers. Although we still have work to do, we are positioning for sustainable growth through investments in people and technology to deliver a seamless shopping experience at scale.

Wal-Mart paid $1.6 billion in dividends during the quarter and repurchased approximately 6 million shares for $437 million.

Consolidated operating income fell 8.8%, which the company attributed to investments in people and technology. When it reported second-quarter results in August, Wal-Mart estimated a $0.24 per share negative impact on EPS related to higher wages and $0.06 to $0.09 per share related to incremental investment in global e-commerce, in addition to the currency exchange impact.

Given the initial reaction to the quarter’s results, it may be that investors finally have accepted Wal-Mart’s plans to raise wages for its lowest paid workers and invest more in online sales. It seems that the company may have succeeded in resetting expectations. Now the catch is to prove that the trajectory for shares is up for the longer haul.

Wal-Mart’s shares were up about 2.6% in premarket trading Tuesday, at $59.36 in a 52-week range of $56.30 to $90.97. Thomson Reuters had a consensus analyst price target of around $62.83 before the results were announced.

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