Did Wal-Mart Just Douse Hopes for a Recovery?

And so it goes, right on down the line. Nothing terrible or glaring. Nothing awesome or inspiring. Mostly “meh,” as my co-host Jeff Macke says in the attached video of the world’s biggest retailer’s latest results and cautious guidance.

Speaking of which, the hottest stock in the Dow Industrials over the past three months did not give investors much of anything new to stand on to carry the momentum of a 90-day, 25% sprint forward.

Officially, the full-year outlook was nudged and narrowed. The press release states: “We are raising and narrowing the company’s full-year EPS guidance to a range of $4.83 to $4.93. Our previous range was $4.72 to $4.92. Last year’s full-year EPS was $4.54,” which leaves out the fact that analysts’ consensus is already at $4.93.

Perhaps the one thing that did stand out to me was the company’s not-so-subtle reference to the ongoing economic challenges facing its customers. CEO Mike Duke points out that “the paycheck cycle remains pronounced” in the U.S. and abroad, but in the very next line he makes the point that Wal-Mart’s low-price leadership positions it well with customers who are increasingly seeking value.

And therein lies the opportunity (or the trap) that is Wal-Mart shares right now.

Either you believe the economy has bottomed and is turning the corner or you don’t. If you are of the rosier persuasion, then Wal-Mart’s same-store sales growth of around 2% is probably not the most compelling upside story you can buy right now — especially with the stock trading within a few dollars of its all-time high of $75.24, hit just two weeks ago on July 30.

On the flip side, for those taking a more dour view, the low-cost leader might just be the place to be if you want to hide out in a relatively safe haven until the storm blows over.

You also have to remember that, stunningly, Wal-Mart isn’t even considered a retailer amongst strategists and traders who have been forced to accept S&P’s classification. It’s in the Consumer Staples Sector (XLP) rather than in the Consumer Discretionary Sector (XLY), alongside all the other big box chain stores like Home Depot (HD), Lowe’s (LOW), Gap (GPS), and rival Target (TGT).

Do you buy the dip and scoop up shares of Wal-Mart as a defensive play, or do you take a pass in favor of something offering faster growth?

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