On August 16th, WMT reported very strong 2Q18 earnings (Chrome keeps warning me the Walmart investor web pages aren’t safe to access, so I’m not adding details). Wall Street seems to have taken this result as evidence that the company makeover to become a more effective competitor to Amazon is bearing enough fruit that we should be thinking of a “new,” secular growth WMT.
Maybe that’s right. But I think there’s a simpler, and likely more correct, interpretation.
WMT’s original aim was to provide affordable one-stop shopping to communities with a population of fewer than 250,000. It has since expanded into supermarkets, warehouse stores and, most recently, online sales. Its store footprint is very faint in the affluent Northeast and in southern California, however. And its core audience is not wealthy, standing somewhere below Target and above the dollar stores in terms of customer income.
This demographic has been hurt the worst by the one-two punch of recession and rapid technological change since 2000. My read of the stellar WMT figures is that they show less WMT’s change in structure than that the company’s customers are just now–nine years after the worst of the financial collapse–feeling secure enough to begin spending less cautiously.
This interpretation has three consequences: although Walmart is an extraordinary company, WMT may not be the growth vehicle that 2Q18 might suggest. Other formats, like the dollar stores or even TGT, that cater to a similar demographic may be more interesting. Finally, the idea that recovery is just now reaching the common man both justifies the Fed’s decade-long loose money policy–and suggests that at this point there’s little reason for it not to continue to raise short-term interest rates.