February was a great month for Wall Street. These were our 5 best-performing stocks

Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City, U.S., February 23, 2024. 

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

February was a strong month for stocks and the Club’s portfolio.

The advance came as investors parsed through fourth-quarter earnings results and fresh economic data, searching for clues about when the Federal Reserve will finally cut interest rates. The Nasdaq Composite led the march higher in February, gaining 6.1% and finishing the month at its first record close since November 2021. Meanwhile, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 both hit a series of all-time highs throughout the month, climbing 2.2% and 5.2%, respectively.

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Best Buy warns of layoffs as it issues soft full-year guidance

People walk past a Best Buy store in Manhattan, New York City, November 22, 2021.

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

Best Buy surpassed Wall Street’s revenue and earnings expectations for the holiday quarter on Thursday, even as the company navigated through a period of tepid consumer electronics demand.

But the retailer warned of another year of softer sales and said it would lay off workers and cut other costs across the business. CEO Corie Barry offered few specifics, but said the company has to make sure its workforce and stores match customers’ changing shopping habits. Cuts will free up capital to invest back into the business and in newer areas, such as artificial intelligence, she added.

“This is giving us some of that space to be able to reinvest into our future and make sure we feel like we are really well positioned for the industry to start to rebound,” she said on a call with reporters.

For this fiscal year, Best Buy anticipates revenue will range from $41.3 billion to $42.6 billion. That would mark a drop from the most recently ended fiscal year, when full-year revenue totaled $43.45 billion. It said comparable sales will range from flat to a 3% decline.

The retailer plans to close 10 to 15 stores this year after shuttering 24 in the past fiscal year.

One challenge that will affect sales in the year ahead: it is a week shorter. Best Buy said the extra week in the past fiscal year lifted revenue by about $735 million and boosted diluted earnings per share by about 30 cents.

Shares of Best Buy closed more than 1% higher Thursday after briefly touching a 52-week high of $86.11 earlier in the session.

Here’s what the consumer electronics retailer reported for its fiscal fourth quarter of 2024 compared with what Wall Street was expecting, based on a survey of analysts by LSEG, formerly known as Refinitiv:

  • Earnings per share: $2.72, adjusted vs. $2.52 expected
  • Revenue: $14.65 billion vs. $14.56 billion expected

A dip in demand, but a better-than-feared holiday

Best Buy has dealt with slower demand in part due to the strength of its sales during the pandemic. Like home improvement companies, Best Buy saw outsized spending as shoppers were stuck at home. Plus, many items that the retailer sells like laptops, refrigerators and home theater systems tend to be pricier and less frequent purchases.

The retailer has cited other challenges, too: Shoppers have been choosier about making big purchases while dealing with inflation-driven higher prices of food and more. Plus, they’ve returned to splitting their dollars between services and goods after pandemic years of little activity.

Even so, Best Buy put up a holiday quarter that was better than feared. In the three-month period that ended Feb. 3, the company’s net income fell by 7% to $460 million, or $2.12 per share, from $495 million, or $2.23 per share in the year-ago period. Revenue dropped from $14.74 billion a year earlier.

Comparable sales, a metric that includes sales online and at stores open at least 14 months, declined 4.8% during the quarter as shoppers bought fewer appliances, mobile phones, tablets and home theater setups than the year-ago period. Gaming, on the other hand, was a strong sales category in the holiday quarter.

In the U.S., Best Buy’s comparable sales dropped 5.1% and its online sales decreased by 4.8%.

During the quarter, traditional holiday shopping days were Best Buy’s strongest, CFO Matt Bilunas said on the company’s earnings call. Comparable sales were down 5% year over year in November but fell just 2% in December around the gift-giving holidays. January was the weakest month during the quarter with comparable sales down 12%, he said.

Barry said customers “were very deal-focused through the holiday season.” Sales on days known for deep discounts like Black Friday and the week of Cyber Monday matched expectations, but the December sales lull was worse than expected.

Demand was stronger than the company anticipated in the four days before Christmas.

Signs of ‘stabilization’

On the earnings call, Barry said Best Buy expects the coming year to be one “of increasing industry sales stabilization.”

She said the company is “focused on sharpening our customer experiences and industry positioning,” along with driving up its operating income rate. That metric is expected to improve in the coming year.

Strength in services revenue, which includes fees from its annual membership program, in-home installation and repairs, has helped to offset weaker demand for new items. It’s a growth area that the company expects will persist in the coming year.

Some gains in its service business came from a switch to My Best Buy, a three-tiered membership program that ranges in price from free to $179.99 per year depending on the perks and benefits.

The company removed home installations as a perk of that program, which Barry said on a call with reporters resulted in more people choosing to pay for that service.

As of the end of the fiscal year, My Best Buy had 7 million paid members. She said customers who belong to the program spent more at Best Buy than those who don’t.

Barry said Best Buy’s services will help the retailer stand out, especially as customers seek guidance as artificial intelligence becomes part of more devices.

The retailer has been waiting for customers to upgrade and replace their consumer electronics after the pandemic-induced wave. There are some signs that cycle has begun, Barry said on the earnings call. For example, she said, year-over-year comparable sales for laptops turned positive in the fiscal fourth quarter and have remained positive in the first quarter.

She cited other positive indicators, too, including cooling inflation and “green shoots” in the housing market. Sales at Best Buy are not directly correlated to the housing market, which has seen slower turnover, but home purchases do tend to spur appliance and TV purchases, she said.

Best Buy paid dividends of $198 million and spent $70 million on share buybacks during the period. On Thursday, the company said its board of directors had approved a 2% increase in the regular quarterly dividend to 94 cents per share, which will be paid in April.

As of Thursday’s close, Best Buy’s stock is up roughly 3% so far this year. The company has underperformed the approximately 7% gains of the S&P 500 during that period. Best Buy has a market value of about $17.4 billion.

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For Black workers, progress in the workplace but still a high hill to climb

Ali and Jamila Wright, co-owners of Brooklyn Tea.

Courtesy: Brooklyn Tea

Looking at the state of Black employment in America tells a mixed story: Much progress has been made in the age of the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond, but much is left to be done.

In the nearly four years that have passed since the pandemic upended the U.S. economy, the advancement for Black people has been unmistakable: a surge in earnings that outdid the gains for both white and Hispanic people, an unemployment rate that has fallen more than a percentage point from where it stood in January 2020 and a general sense that the collective consciousness has been raised regarding inequality in the workplace.

Yet, there are still racial discrepancies in terms of earnings. Black workers are still notably underrepresented in some professions, particularly high-end tech, and efforts to address some of these issues have fallen out of favor amid criticism that they have gone too far and are inefficient.

On balance, though, there’s a feeling of optimism that real progress has been made.

“This recovery really stretched the limits of what policymakers thought was possible for Black workers,” said Jessica Fulton, interim president at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that focuses on issues for people and communities of color. “We were in a situation where folks accepted that Black unemployment was going to always be high and there was nothing that they could do about it. So I think this is an opportunity to continue to push the limits of what’s possible.”

When looking at the data, the numbers are encouraging.

The Black unemployment rate in January was 5.3%, up a touch from December but still near the all-time low of 4.8% hit in April 2023. Black employment in the month totaled nearly 20.9 million people, up 6.3% from February 2020, the month before the pandemic hit, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From a pay standpoint, the numbers are even more encouraging. For Black workers, weekly before-tax earnings as of the end of 2023 have risen 24.8% since the first quarter of 2020. That’s more than the 18.1% increase for white people and the 22.6% rise for Hispanics during the period. Of the groups the BLS measures, only Asians, at 25.1% had seen bigger pay gains.

Still, the unemployment rate is lower for white people, by a wide margin at 3.4% in January.

“High unemployment for Black workers is a solvable problem,” Fulton said. “There are challenges we need to address. We need to figure out how to address discrimination, we need to figure out how do we address unequal access to high-quality workforce development. We need to figure out how to address labor loopholes.”

Focus on tech

One of the areas where the greatest discrepancies exist for underrepresented groups is technology, where Black people and others hold few positions and even fewer are in management roles.

The situation is well-documented. While Black people make up about 12% of the U.S. labor force, they hold just 8% of all tech jobs and a mere 3% of executive positions, according to a McKinsey & Company study released in 2023.

There are several groups working to address the disparity, with varying levels of success.

Those involved tell similar stories. Black workers are interested in tech and believe there are opportunities. Companies don’t understand the real-world benefits of a diverse workplace. Opportunities are limited amid a backlash against the diversity, equity and inclusion push.

“Diversity is not just a warm and fuzzy feeling. You are proven by numbers to get a better return on investment,” said Autumn Nash, a software engineer at a major tech company in the Northwest that she asked not to be named because the company hadn’t given permission for this article.

Nash, who is Black, holds a prominent position in tech, where she has worked for well over a decade while both climbing the corporate ladder and trying to assist those in her cohort achieve success as well.

Autumn Nash

Courtesy: Autumn Nash

Along with her work responsibilities, she’s involved with several organizations looking to help others achieve in tech. They include Rewriting the Code, a global network founded in 2017 that focuses on women, and MilSpouse Coders, which assists military spouses and where Nash serves as education board chair.

Companies that build diversity the right way prosper, she said. Those that don’t have suffered on a tangible level in the form of products that are inadequate and data bases that don’t reflect real-world dynamics.

“The lack of diversity has left very big, wonderful tech companies with egg on their face, because they’ve had premature products,” Nash said. “One of the best ways to fight data bias is with diversity, and it’s diversity in all different backgrounds. If you look at the boards of most big AI companies, do you see diversity there?”

Indeed, instances of bias along racial lines is still seen as a significant problem, particularly in tech.

Some 24% of tech workers said they experienced racial discrimination at work in 2022, up from 18% the prior year, according to a survey by tech career marketplace Dice. While some companies have changed their corporate culture, many others remain behind.

“There are some good stories out there,” said Sue Harnett, founder of Rewriting the Code. “Goldman Sachs and Bank of America do an outstanding job, not only trying to recruit, but actually bringing them on board and converting them from being interns to full-time employees.”

Rewriting the Code collaborates with workers and companies to address diversity issues. Specifically, the organization focuses on college women and follows them through the first six years or so on their career path.

On the downside, Harnett still sees too many token measures that don’t go far enough.

For instance, she said some companies focus on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which only goes so far in being able to find a capable and diverse workforce.

“I cringe when I talk with a company and ask them about their diversity recruiting strategy and their answer is they work with HBCUs,” she said. “That can be part of the strategy, but it shouldn’t be the only strategy.”

Harnett is sympathetic, though, with how tough the job can be.

“The amount of money that you have to put in to try and find this talent can be overwhelming, but I think there are solutions out there, so I’m personally optimistic,” she said. “I wish we made more progress by now. But the companies are ones that will drive this.”

The small business view

Sometimes the answers are found closer to home.

Ali and Jamila Wright are co-owners of Brooklyn Tea, a small business based in the New York City borough that has expanded to Atlanta and is looking for more growth opportunities.

From a hiring strategy, they focus almost solely on underrepresented groups who have a variety of employment needs. For instance, they hire actors in between shows or other workers in other professions who have been laid off and need a bridge until they find other employment.

Ali and Jamila Wright, co-owners of Brooklyn Tea.

Courtesy: Brooklyn Tea

“All of our employees are people of color,” Ali Wright said. “We have people of color, we have people that are binary or nonbinary. So being that we are diverse ourselves, it just makes it easier to hire people that we know are systematically disadvantaged.”

Brooklyn Tea has been a beneficiary of a relatively booming small business environment, particularly for Black and Latino entrepreneurs.

Black-owned businesses as a share of Black households surged from 5% to 11% from 2019 to 2022, the fastest pace in 30 years, according to the Small Business Administration. The surge has come as the number and dollar value of loans to Black-owned businesses has more than doubled and as the share of the SBA’s loan portfolio to minority-owned businesses has jumped to more than 32% from 23% since 2020.

However, race remains a tenuous dynamic in the U.S., and there’s always the possibility that progress can be rolled back, particularly considering a growingly hostile attitude toward DEI initiatives. Critics say the approach has resulted in a misallocation of resources, particularly following controversies at Ivy League schools.

“From 2020 until 2022, that’s when we all felt the most potential and the most hope, even in the midst of a pandemic,” Jamila Wright said. “We were receiving so much funding and just collaboration from corporate entities, and that attack on DEI has impacted some of the businesses, including ours.”

But the controversies have mainly triggered a reexamination of how to achieve diversity, not a backdown on initiatives in general.

For instance, a Conference Board survey in December found no human resources executives were planning to scale back diversity efforts. Still, Jamila Wright said she is cautious about the future.

“I think history has taught us that nothing, when it comes to race in America, blows over quickly,” she said. “So it’s just us trying to figure out how to be savvy in situations where we shouldn’t have to be savvy. That has been something that we have to become equipped to do.”

CORRECTION: Autumn Nash is a software engineer at a major tech company in the Northwest. A representative for her firm misstated her name.

Bonawyn Eison: Removing barriers will lead to reform

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Here’s why investors should stop worrying so much about concentration risk in the market

After a brief respite, the Magnificent 7 stocks have again hit new highs on the heels of Nvidia’s blowout earnings: They now again comprise about 30% of the S&P 500. Throw in the remainder of the top 10 stocks (Berkshire Hathaway, Lilly, and Broadcom) and the concentration rises to about 33% of the S&P 500.

At the recent ETF conference in Miami Beach, Registered investment advisors were eager for advice on how they might get their clients to stop pestering them to invest more money in the Magnificent 7.

There was much handwringing about the dangers of over-concentration. RIAs worried that just like they get blamed for not being in the Mag 7 rally with sufficient zest, they will get clobbered by clients blaming them when (and if) they bubble bursts.

The hope of the RIAs was the market rally would broaden out.

Fat chance. That was two weeks ago, during a brief lull in the relentless march of Nvidia and the Magnificent 7.

But Nvidia’s earnings have killed the last hope of the “diversify” crowd. The numbers speak for themselves:

Major Sectors YTD

Van Eck Semiconductor ETF (SMH) up 20% (25% Nvidia!)

Roundhill Magnificent 7 ETF (MAGS) up 14% (14% Nvidia!)

S&P 500 up 5% (4% Nvidia!)

S&P 500 Equal-Weight ETF (RSP) up 2%

Is over-concentration really a risk?

On the surface, it sure seems that way. The comparisons are getting silly.

At the ETF conference, Dimensional Fund Advisors noted that the Magnificent 7 stocks were now just as large as the entire combined stock markets of Japan, UK, Canada, France, Hong Kong/China combined:

Magnificent 7 vs. The World

(MSCI All Country World Index weighting)

Entire U.S. stock market: 63%

Japan, UK, Canada, France, Hong Kong/China combined: 17.5%

Magnificent 7: 17%

Source: Dimensional Funds

That seems crazy, no? And yet, it’s not at all unusual to see concentration like this in prior periods. And it’s mostly around tech.

High concentration levels have happened often

It’s true concentration has risen in the last 10 years. As late as 2015, the top 10 stocks in the S&P 500 were only 17.8% of the index, according to a 2023 study by FS Investments.

But that was a low point. Most of the time, the concentration of the top 10 stocks has been far higher.

For example, in the mid-1960s the concentration of the top 10 was over 40% of the S&P 500.

The domination of the so-called “Nifty 50” stocks (which included IBM, American Express, General Electric, Polaroid and Xerox) in the 1960s and early 1970s regularly kept the concentration of the top 10 stocks over 30%.

It slowly declined over the next 20 years, settling between roughly 17% and 20% of the market capitalization of the S&P 500 between the 1980s and the late 1990s.

It shot up again during the dotcom and Internet boom, which again pushed the concentration of the top 10 to over 25% in the late 1990s.

It’s not just a U.S. issue

Other countries like China, France, and Germany have far higher concentration in the top 10 names than the U.S.

The broadest China ETF, the iShares MSCI China ETF (MCHI) has over 600 stocks. But the top 10 stocks, which include Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu, comprise 42% of the entire ETF.

Same with Germany: The iShares MSCI Germany ETF (EWG) has 57% of its weighting in 10 stocks, with 22% in just two stocks, SAP and Siemens.

Same with the United Kingdom: The iShares MSCI UK (EWU) has 50% in the top 10 holdings, with nearly a quarter in three stocks, Shell, AstraZeneca, and HSBC.

Same with France: The iShares MSCI France (EWQ) has 57% in the top 10 with just two companies — LVMH and Total — comprising 20% of the weighting.

And same with Canada: The iShares S&P/TSX 60 Index (XIU) has 45% in the top 10 holdings.

Concentration of top 10 stocks in country indexes

China 42%

Germany 57%

UK: 50%

France: 57%

Canada 45%

U.S.: 33%

Concentration has helped U.S. and index investors

You may worry about it, but concentration has been a boon to index investors and to U.S. investors in general.

We all know the majority of the gains in the last year can be attributed to a small number of mostly tech stocks. Investors who own the S&P 500 don’t have to pick those winners; they just go along for the ride.

Second, U.S. stocks are global market leaders, and when a small group becomes market leaders it almost always means the U.S. stock market outperforms the world.

That is exactly what has happened. The U.S. stock market, which was roughly 40% of the global market capitalization a short while ago, is now roughly 50% of global market capitalization.

U.S. investors in broadly diversified indexes have been richly rewarded for their “concentration risk.”

Sit back and relax a little

Here’s what it all means: Concentration is a characteristic of market cap-weighted indexes. These indexes reward the winners and penalize the losers.

The reason the Magnificent 7 has done so well is that these are the most profitable companies in the world. They are at the cutting edge of transformative technologies, particularly AI.

That’s the primary reason they are the leaders. There are also secondary reasons: globalization, which made supply chains more efficient, and the long decline in interest rates (which has come to an end).

But the bottom line is that in an era where growth has been hard to come by, these companies have plenty of it. And investors are willing to pay up.

What about comparisons to the dot-com era? The stocks at the top contribute a far greater amount to the earnings of the S&P 500 than they did in the 1990s. And the cash flow is much higher.

There’s already been a correction: It was called 2022

At the ETF conference, the big worry among the RIAs was, “But what if there’s a big correction in the Magnificent 7?”

Uh, sorry, but they already corrected. Nvidia went from roughly $292 at the start of 2022 to $112 by October of that year, a drop of 62%. The other Magnificent 7 stocks all had big drops then.

Of course they could all correct again. But the AI revolution is very real.

Nvidia’s sales tripled. Profits were up 800%. That is a very real revolution.

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Fed officials expressed caution about lowering rates too quickly at last meeting, minutes show

WASHINGTON – Federal Reserve officials indicated at their last meeting that they were in no hurry to cut interest rates and expressed both optimism and caution on inflation, according to minutes from the session released Wednesday.

The discussion came as policymakers not only decided to leave their key overnight borrowing rate unchanged but also altered the post-meeting statement to indicate that no cuts would be coming until the rate-setting Federal Open Market Committee held “greater confidence” that inflation was receding.

“Most participants noted the risks of moving too quickly to ease the stance of policy and emphasized the importance of carefully assessing incoming data in judging whether inflation is moving down sustainably to 2 percent,” the minutes stated.

The meeting summary did indicate a general sense of optimism that the Fed’s policy moves had succeeded in lowering the rate of inflation, which in mid-2022 hit its highest level in more than 40 years.

However, officials noted that they wanted to see more before starting to ease policy, while saying that rate hikes are likely over.

“In discussing the policy outlook, participants judged that the policy rate was likely at its peak for this tightening cycle,” the minutes stated. But, “Participants generally noted that they did not expect it would be appropriate to reduce the target range for the federal funds rate until they had gained greater confidence that inflation was moving sustainably toward 2 percent.”

Before the meeting, a string of reports showed that inflation, while still elevated, was moving back toward the Fed’s 2% target. While the minutes assessed the “solid progress” being made, the committee viewed some of that progress as “idiosyncratic” and possibly due to factors that won’t last.

Consequently, members said they will “carefully assess” incoming data to judge where inflation is heading over the longer term. Officials noted both upside and downside risks and worried about lowering rates too quickly.

Questions over how quickly to move

“Participants highlighted the uncertainty associated with how long a restrictive monetary policy stance would need to be maintained,” the summary said.

Officials “remained concerned that elevated inflation continued to harm households, especially those with limited means to absorb higher prices,” the minutes said. “While the inflation data had indicated significant disinflation in the second half of last year, participants observed that they would be carefully assessing incoming data in judging whether inflation was moving down sustainably toward 2 percent.”

The minutes reflected an internal debate over how quickly the Fed will want to move considering the uncertainty about the outlook.

Since the Jan. 30-31 meeting, the cautionary approach has borne out as separate readings on consumer and producer prices showed inflation running hotter than expected and still well ahead of the Fed’s 2% 12-month target.

Multiple officials in recent weeks have indicated a patient approach toward loosening monetary policy. A stable economy, which grew at a 2.5% annualized pace in 2023, has encouraged FOMC members that the succession of 11 interest rate hikes implemented in 2022 and 2023 have not substantially hampered growth.

To the contrary, the U.S. labor market has continued to expand at a brisk pace, adding 353,000 nonfarm payroll positions in January. First-quarter economic data thus far is pointing to GDP growth of 2.9%, according to the Atlanta Fed.

Along with the discussion on rates, members also brought up the bond holdings on the Fed’s balance sheet. Since June 2022, the central bank has allowed more than $1.3 trillion in Treasurys and mortgage-backed securities to roll off rather than reinvesting proceeds as usual.

‘Ample level of reserves’

The minutes indicated that a more in-depth discussion will take place at the March meeting. Policymakers also indicated at the January meeting that they are likely to take a go-slow approach on a process nicknamed “quantitative tightening.” The pertinent question is how high reserve holdings will need to be to satisfy banks’ needs. The Fed characterizes the current level as “ample.”

“Some participants remarked that, given the uncertainty surrounding estimates of the ample level of reserves, slowing the pace of runoff could help smooth the transition to that level of reserves or could allow the Committee to continue balance sheet runoff for longer,” the minutes said. “In addition, a few participants noted that the process of balance sheet runoff could continue for some time even after the Committee begins to reduce the target range for the federal funds rate.”

Fed officials consider current policy to be restrictive, so the big question going forward will be how much it will need to be relaxed both to support growth and control inflation.

There is some concern that growth continues to be too fast.

The consumer price index rose 3.1% on a 12-month basis in January – 3.9% when excluding food and energy, the latter of which posted a big decline during the month. So-called sticky CPI, which weighs toward housing and other prices that don’t fluctuate as much, rose 4.6%, according to the Atlanta Fed. Producer prices increased 0.3% on a monthly basis, well above Wall Street expectations.

In an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired just a few days after the FOMC meeting, Chair Jerome Powell said, “With the economy strong like that, we feel like we can approach the question of when to begin to reduce interest rates carefully.” He added that he is looking for “more evidence that inflation is moving sustainably down to 2%.”

Markets have since had to recalibrate their expectations for rate cuts.

Where traders in the fed funds futures market had been pricing in a near lock for a March cut, that has been pushed out to June. The expected level of cuts for the full year had been reduced to four from six. FOMC officials in December projected three.

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Walmart beats Wall Street’s holiday expectations as e-commerce sales soar

Walmart said Tuesday that quarterly revenue rose 6%, as shoppers turned to the big-box retailer throughout the holiday season and the company’s global e-commerce sales grew by double digits. 

The retail giant also announced Tuesday that it would acquire smart TV maker Vizio to accelerate growth of its advertising business. Walmart is acquiring the company for $2.3 billion, or $11.50 per share. 

In a CNBC interview, Chief Financial Officer John David Rainey said customers have still shown discretion with purchases. They are putting fewer items in their baskets but shopping more frequently, he said. Electronics, TVs, computers and some other expensive items have been a tougher sell, Rainey added.

Yet, he said even after the holiday rush, Walmart saw continued sales strength.

Here’s what Walmart reported compared with what Wall Street was expecting, based on a survey of analysts by LSEG, formerly known as Refinitiv:

  • Earnings per share: $1.80 adjusted vs. $1.65 expected
  • Revenue: $173.39 billion vs. $170.71 billion expected

In the three-month period that ended Jan. 31, Walmart’s net income fell to $5.49 billion or $2.03 per share, compared with $6.28 billion, or $2.32 per share, in the year-ago period.

Revenue increased from $164.05 billion in the year-ago period.

Walmart said it expects consolidated net sales to rise 4% to 5% in its fiscal first quarter. It also anticipates adjusted earnings of $1.48 to $1.56 per share on a pre-stock split basis.

For its fiscal 2025, the retailer expects consolidated net sales will climb 3% to 4%. Walmart anticipates adjusted earnings will be $6.70 to $7.12 per share on a pre-stock split basis.

Walmart shares closed 3% higher Tuesday after the company shared its results, outlook and acquisition news. Shares of Walmart are up more than 11% this year, outperforming the S&P 500, which is up about 4% during the same period.

Walmart’s e-commerce strength

Walmart has weathered high inflation better than many other retailers. It has used its value reputation to draw in families across income levels and has leaned into new ways to make money, such as selling ads, expanding its third-party marketplace and offering a subscription-based program called Walmart+.

Comparable sales, an industry metric also known as same-store sales, rose 4% for Walmart U.S. At Sam’s Club, comparable sales increased 1.9%, including fuel. 

Global e-commerce sales jumped 23% year over year, topping $100 billion in total. In the U.S., e-commerce rose 17% as shoppers used curbside pickup and got orders delivered to their homes.

Customer transactions increased 4.3% compared with the year-ago period in the U.S. However, average ticket, or the amount that a customer spent, declined slightly. 

Prices have fallen in some categories. Private brands made by Walmart, which tend to be cheaper, have gained popularity in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

CEO Doug McMillon said on an earnings call Tuesday that prices of general merchandise, a category that includes items such as clothing, are lower than a year ago and even two years ago for some things. For food, prices are lower for some items such as apples, eggs and deli snacks, but higher for other items such as asparagus and blackberries.

Prices of dry grocery items, paper goods and cleaning supplies are up mid-single-digit percentages compared to last year and high teens compared with two years ago.

Walmart also backed away from predictions of deflation. On the company’s third-quarter earnings call in November, McMillon said the company could soon face a deflationary environment, where prices not just stabilize, but also decline. He said those lower prices could help customers pay for more discretionary items.

On Tuesday, however, Rainey told CNBC that deflation seems less likely now. “The possibility overall [of deflation] still remains, but prices are more stable than where they were three months ago,” he said.

Profit push

One reason for Walmart’s earnings growth? The company is selling more than just cereal, socks and shampoo.

Walmart has shifted into more profitable businesses — and that new model is a major part of its future. For instance, the retailer makes money from packing and shipping online orders for sellers that are part of its third-party marketplace. It had a delivery business that drops off purchases from major companies such as Home Depot, and local shops such as bakeries.

It’s also selling more ads, posting gains for the business of about 33% globally and 22% in the U.S. year over year.

Rainey told CNBC that the Vizio acquisition will be “an accelerant” for the “high-margin, fast-growing part of our business.” By using the TV’s operating system, Walmart could not only show ads, but also have better data that tracks how customers engage with the ad and if it leads to purchases.

The company has also boosted efficiency by adding automation to distribution centers that replenish store shelves and fulfillment centers that keep up with online orders.

At an investor day last year, Walmart spoke about how it planned to grow profits faster than sales over the next five years.

On an annual basis, Walmart now expects to grow sales more than 5% and operating income more than 8% on average, Rainey told investors on Tuesday’s earnings call.

Walmart’s e-commerce business is not yet profitable, but Rainey said the company is getting closer. He said the cost of fulfillment has fallen 20% over the past year, as the company drops off more packages on each delivery route and sells related services, such as online ads.

Customers are shopping more on Walmart’s website and app, which helps create those denser delivery routes. Weekly active e-commerce customers grew 17% over the past year, he said.

Expanding stores, boosting dividend

As many other companies have announced cost cuts, Walmart has done the opposite. It announced in late January that it would open or expand more than 150 stores in the U.S. over the next five years. That’s on top of an aggressive plan to upgrade more than 1,400 of its existing Walmart stores to have a more modern look.

Stores that have gotten that fresh design have had higher sales within their four walls and lifted sales in the surrounding market, Rainey told investors on the earnings call. He said the renovated stores make more room for online pickup and delivery orders and have improved Walmart’s reputation with shoppers.

Along with those store investments, Walmart said it would raise store manager wages to an average of $128,000 per year and make managers eligible for a bonus of up to 200% of their base salary.

It also announced a 3-for-1 stock split in late January, as shares hovered near an all-time high.

On Tuesday, Walmart said it would reward shareholders, too. It is raising its dividend by 9% this year, the largest increase in more than a decade.

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2 out of 5 industrial stocks are at record highs. Here’s our post-earnings outlook on all of them

Eaton Corporation signage at the NYSE

Source: NYSE

Earnings season was not perfect for our industrial-focused portfolio companies, but we’re feeling pretty good about their prospects for the rest of the year.

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These oil companies could be the next takeover targets in Permian Basin after Diamondback deal

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Biogen revenue and profit shrink on Aduhelm costs, slumping sales of multiple sclerosis therapies

A Biogen facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Brian Snyder | Reuters

Biogen on Tuesday reported fourth-quarter revenue and profit that shrank from a year ago, as it recorded charges related to dropping its controversial Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm and as sales slumped in its multiple sclerosis therapies, the company’s biggest drug category.

Biogen booked sales of $2.39 billion for the quarter, down 6% from the same period a year ago. It reported net income of $249.7 million, or $1.71 per share, for the fourth quarter, down from net income of $550.4 million, or $3.79 per share, for the same period a year ago. Adjusting for one-time items, the company reported $2.95 per share.

The drugmaker’s fourth-quarter earnings per share, both unadjusted and adjusted, saw a negative impact of 35 cents associated with previously disclosed costs of pulling Aduhelm, which had a polarizing approval and rollout in the U.S.

Biogen is cutting costs while pinning its hopes on its other Alzheimer’s drugs, including its closely watched treatment Leqembi, and other newly launched products to replace declining revenue from its multiple sclerosis therapies.

Shares of Biogen closed more than 7% lower on Tuesday.

Here’s what Biogen reported for the fourth quarter compared with what Wall Street was expecting, based on a survey of analysts by LSEG, formerly known as Refinitiv: 

  • Earnings per share: $2.95 adjusted vs. $3.18 expected
  • Revenue: $2.39 billion vs. $2.47 billion expected

Also on Tuesday, Biogen issued full-year 2024 guidance that calls for adjusted earnings of $15 to $16 per share. Analysts surveyed by LSEG had expected full-year earnings guidance of $15.65 per share.

The drugmaker said it expects 2024 sales to decline by a low to mid-single digit percentage compared with last year. But the company anticipates its pharmaceutical revenue, which includes product revenue and its 50% share of Leqembi sales, to be flat this year compared with 2023.

Multiple sclerosis drug sales slump

Biogen’s fourth-quarter revenue from multiple sclerosis products fell 8% to $1.17 billion as some of the therapies face competition from cheaper generics.

The company’s once-blockbuster drug Tecfidera, which is facing competition from a generic rival, posted revenue that fell 17.8% to $244.3 million in the fourth quarter. Analysts had expected that drug to book sales of $233.1 million, according to FactSet.

Vumerity, an oral medication for relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis, generated $156.4 million in sales. That came in below analysts’ estimates of $174.4 million, FactSet estimates said. 

“We’ve had several years of declining revenue and profit, which is not unusual when you’re dealing with patent expirations,” Biogen CEO Christopher Viehbacher told reporters on a media call Tuesday. He added that one of the key ways Biogen will return to growth is to “reposition the company away from our legacy franchise of multiple sclerosis towards new products.”

Meanwhile, Biogen’s rare disease drugs recorded $471.8 million in sales, up 3% from the same period a year ago. 

Spinraza, a medication used to treat a rare neuromuscular disorder called spinal muscular atrophy, recorded $412.6 million in sales. That came under analysts’ estimate of $443.4 million in revenue, according to FactSet. 

Biogen’s biosimilar drugs booked $188.2 million in sales, up 8% from the year-earlier period. Analysts had expected sales of $196.7 million from those medicines.

Leqembi, other new drugs

The results come amid the rollout of Biogen and Eisai’s Leqembi, which became the first drug found to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease to win approval in the U.S. in July.

Eisai, which reported earnings last week, recorded $7 million in fourth-quarter revenue and $10 million in full-year sales from Leqembi.

Biogen CEO Viehbacher told reporters on the media call Tuesday that there are around 2,000 patients currently on Leqembi. That makes Biogen’s target of 10,000 patients by the end of March 2024 look increasingly difficult to hit, but Viehbacher emphasized that the company is focused more on the long-term reach of Leqembi rather than meeting that benchmark. 

“I think what’s important is we are now making progress,” he told reporters. “The 10,000 isn’t really hard and I think we are now really focusing on commercial plans — how do we get to the next 100,000?”

Notably, the low rate of adoption isn’t due to lack of demand: There are some 8,000 U.S. patients currently waiting to get on treatment, executives from Eisai said on an earnings call last week. 

More CNBC health coverage

The companies are also working toward Food and Drug Administration approval of an injectable version of Leqembi, which showed promising initial results in a clinical trial in October. 

Leqembi is currently administered twice monthly through the veins, a method known as intravenous infusion. The injectable form would be a new and more convenient option for administering the antibody treatment to patients, which could pave the way for higher uptake. 

But investors also have their eyes on other newly launched drugs. 

That includes Skyclarys from Biogen’s acquisition of Reata Pharmaceuticals in July. That drug brought in $56 million in fourth-quarter revenue, according to Biogen.

The FDA cleared Skyclarys last year, making it the first approved treatment for Friedreich ataxia, a rare inherited degenerative disease that can impair walking and coordination in children as young as 5.

On Monday, European Union regulators approved Skyclarys for the treatment of Friedreich ataxia in patients ages 16 and up. 

Biogen has also partnered with Sage Therapeutics on the first pill for postpartum depression, which won FDA approval in August. But the agency declined to clear the drug for major depressive disorder, which is a far larger commercial opportunity. 

Biogen said that pill, called Zurzuvae, generated roughly $2 million in sales for the fourth-quarter.

Don’t miss these stories from CNBC PRO:

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Bitcoin, AI and Magnificent 7: The emerging ETF trends as industry gathers for big conference

Over two thousand attendees are descending on the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach for the annual Exchange ETF conference. To entice participants, the organizers rented out the entire LIV Nightclub Miami at the hotel for a Super Bowl party Sunday night.

While much of the conference is an excuse to party among the ETF industry reps and the Registered Investment Advisors  (RIAs) that are the main attendees, the industry needs a lot of advice.

The Good news: still lots of money coming in, but the industry is maturing

The ETF juggernaut continues to rake in money, now with north of $8 trillion in assets under management.  Indexing/passive investing, the main impetus behind ETFs 30 years ago, continues to bring in new adherents as smarter investors, including the younger ones that have begun investing since the pandemic, come to understand the difficulty of outperforming the market.

The bad news is much of the easy money has already been made as the industry is now reaching middle aged. Just about every type of index fund that can be thought of is already in existence. 

To grow, the ETF industry has to expand the offerings of active management and devise new ways to entice investors.  

Actively managed strategies did well in 2023, accounting for about a quarter of all inflows.  Covered call strategies like the JPMorgan Equity Premium Income ETF (JEPI), which offered protection during a downturn, raked in money.  But with the broad markets hitting new highs, it’s not clear if investors will continue to pour money into covered call strategies that, by definition, underperform in rising markets.

Fortunately, the industry has proven very skilled at capturing whatever investing zeitgeist is in the air.  That can range from the silly (pot ETFs when there was no real pot industry) to ideas that have had some real staying power.

Six or seven years ago, it was thematic tech ETFs like cybersecurity or electric vehicles that pulled in investors. 

The big topics in 2024:  Bitcoin, AI, Magnificent 7 alternatives

In 2024, the industry is betting that the new crop of bitcoin ETFs will pull in billions.  Bitcoin for grandma?  We’ll see.

Besides bitcoin, the big topics here in Miami Beach are 1) A.I/ and what it’s going to do for financial advisors and investors, and 2) how to get clients to think about equity allocation beyond the Magnificent 7.

Notably absent is China investing.

Bitcoin for grandma?  Financial advisors are divided on whether to jump in

Ten spot bitcoin ETFs have successfully launched.  The heads of three of those, Matt Hougan, chief investment officer at Bitwise, Steve Kurz, global head of asset management at Galaxy and David LaValle, global head of ETFs at Grayscale, will lead a panel offering advice to financial advisors, who seem divided on how to proceed.

Ric Edelman, the founder of Edelman Financial Engines, the #1 RIA in the country and currently the head of the Digital Assets Council of Financial Professionals (DACFP), will also be present. 

Edelman has long been a bitcoin bull. He recently estimates bitcoin’s price will reach $150,000 within two years (about three times its current price), and has estimated that Independent RIAs, who collectively manage $8 trillion, could invest 2.5% of their assets under management in crypto in the next two to three years, which would translate into over $154 billion.

Inflows into bitcoin ETFs to date have been modest, but bitcoin ETFs are being viewed by some advisors as the first true bridge between traditional finance and the crypto community. 

But many advisors are torn about recommending them, not just because of the large number of competing products, but because of the legal minefields that still exist around bitcoin, specifically around SEC Chair Gary Gensler’s warning that any financial advisor recommending bitcoin would have to be mindful of “suitability” requirements for clients.

For many, those suitability requirements, along with the high volatility, continuing charges of manipulation, and the doubt about bitcoin as a true asset class will be enough to keep them away. 

The bitcoin ecosystem is in going into overdrive to convince the RIA community otherwise.

 Artificial intelligence: What can it do for the investing community?

Thematic tech investing (cybersecurity, robotics, cloud computing, electric vehicles, social media, etc.) has waxed and waned in the last decade, but there is no doubt Artificial Intelligence ETFs (IRBT, ROBT, BOTZ)  has recaptured some interest.  The problem is defining what an AI investment looks like and which companies are exposed to AI.

But the impact is already being felt by the financial advisory community.

Jason Pereira, senior partner & financial Planner, Woodgate Financial, is speaking on how financial advisors are using artificial intelligence.  There are amazing AI tools that financial advisors can now use.  Pereira describes how it is now possible to generate financial podcasts with just snippets of your own voice.  Just plug in a text, and it can generate a whole podcast without ever saying the actual words.  How to generate text?  In theory, you could go to Chat GPT and say, for example, “Write 500 words about current issues in 401(k)s,” and rewrite it slightly for a specific audience.

In a world where a million people can now generate a podcast on financial advice, how do you maintain value?  Much of the lower skilled tasks (data analysis) will quickly become commodified, but Pereira believes a very big difference will quickly emerge between volume and quality.

Equity Allocation Beyond the Magnificent Seven

Financial advisors are beset by clients urging them to throw money at the Magnificent 7.  Roundhill’s new Magnificent 7 ETF (MAGS) has pulled in big money in the last few months, now north of $100 million in assets under management.

Since the end of last year, there have been enormous inflows into technology ETFs (Apple, Microsoft, NVIDIA), and modest inflows into communications (Meta and Alphabet) and consumer discretionary (Amazon).  Most everything else has languished, with particular outflows in energy, health care, and materials. 

Advisors are eager for advice on how to talk to clients about the concentration risks involved in investing solely in big-cap tech and how to allocate for the long haul. 

Alex Zweber, managing director investment strategy at Parametric and Eric Veiel, head of global investments and CIO at T. Rowe Price are leading a panel on alternative approaches that have had some success recently, including ETFs that invest in option overlays, but also on quality and momentum investing in general, which overlaps but is broader than simply investing in the Magnificent 7.

Stop talking about numbers and returns and start offering “human-centric” advice

Talk to any financial advisor for more than a few minutes, and they will likely tell you how difficult it is dealing with some clients who are convinced they should put all their money into NVIDIA, or Bolivian tin mines, or who have investing ADHD and want to throw all their money in one investment one day, then pull it out the next.

Brian Portnoy and Neil Bage, co-founders of Shaping Wealth, are leading one of the early panels on how financial advisors can move away from an emphasis on numbers and more toward engaging with their clients on a more personal and emotional level.

Sounds touchy-feely, but competition for clients has become intense, and there is a new field emerging on how to provide financial advice that is less centered on numbers (assets under management, fees, quarterly statements), and more centered on developing the investor’s understanding of behavioral finance and emotional intelligence. 

Under this style of investment advice, often called “human-centric” or “human-first” advice, more time may be spent discussing behavioral biases that lead to investing mistakes than on stock market minutiae. This may help the clients develop behaviors that, for example, are better suited to longer term investing (less trading, less market timing).  

Advocates of this approach believe this is a much better way to engage and keep clients for the long term.

What’s missing? China

For years, a panel on international investing, and specifically emerging markets/China investing, was a staple at ETF conferences.

Not anymore.  Notably absent is any discussion of international investing, but particularly China, where political risk is now perceived to be so high that investors are fleeing China and China ETFs. 

Indeed, investing “ex-China” is a bit of a thing.

The iShares Emerging Markets ex-China ETF (EMXC) launched with little fanfare in 2017 and had almost no assets under management for several years.  That changed in late 2022, when China ETFs began a long slow descent, and inflows exploded into EMXC from investors who still wanted emerging market exposure, just not to China.

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