Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., said while its business has been volatile since December, the month of February, in particular, has been "slower than planned" largely due to the tax refund delay. The company said that resulted in Wal-Mart customers cashing about $1.7 billion in income tax refunds year to date, compared with $3 billion for the same period a year ago.
Bill Simon, president of Wal-Mart's U.S. namesake division, said shoppers used their refund money last year to buy TVs ahead of the Super Bowl. This year, the retailer said it isn't sure how customers will use the additional money when they get it, but some analysts say the most likely scenario is that they'll save it.
Wal-Mart said it's also unclear how the payroll tax will affect customers' spending habits, although Simon said shoppers are "talking about it." JP Morgan estimates that the payroll tax increase will equate to $70 a month less in take home pay for Wal-Mart shoppers, assuming an average annual income of $42,500. As a result, Wal-Mart is offering smaller packaging and less expensive products.
Wal-Mart earned $5.6 billion, or $1.67 per share, during the fourth quarter that ended Jan. 31, up from $5.16 billion, or $1.50 per share, a year earlier. Results were helped by a lower tax rate, which was 27.7 percent, compared with the rate of 30.9 percent a year ago. Net sales rose 3.9 percent to $127.1 billion.
Earnings topped Wall Street estimates of $1.57 per share, but sales fell short of the $127.8 billion analysts were expecting.
During the current quarter, Wal-Mart says it expects earnings to range from $1.11 to $1.16 per share, below the $1.18 per share analysts polled by FactSet are expecting. For its namesake U.S. business, Wal-Mart expects first-quarter revenue at stores open at least a year, a measure of a retailer's health, to be unchanged from a year ago. The pace of revenue growth has slowed in recent quarters, and some analysts believe Wal-Mart's forecast could be too optimistic.
For the year, Wal-Mart expects earnings of between $5.20 and $5.40 per share, while analysts expect $5.38 per share.
Despite the subdued forecast, investors were bracing for a weaker report after Bloomberg published a story Friday that leaked an email from an executive characterizing the first two weeks of February as "a total disaster." Shares fell that day, but investors appeared to be relieved on Thursday that Wal-Mart's outlook wasn't worse. Shares rose about 1 percent, or $1.05 per share, on Thursday to close at $70.26.
D'Innocenzio reported from New York. Rugaber reported from Washington, D.C.