Ahead of the Bell: Analyst rates Wal-Mart 'buy'

The Associated Press

Wal-Mart's turnaround effort is gaining firmer footing, and more improvement is expected as international operations improve and growth accelerates for smaller-format stores, according to Jefferies Equity Research, which boosted its rating on the world's largest retailer.

Wal-Mart expects to add about the same square footage next year as it did in the current fiscal year but with fewer dollars spent. It will focus in the United States on rolling out more Neighborhood Markets stores, which are about a quarter of the size of supercenters. Company executives say the return on investment these stores generate approaches that of supercenters.

Wal-Mart also expects strong sales during the crucial holiday shopping season.

Shares of the Bentonville, Ark., company hit an all-time high of $76.81 on Wednesday after executives said during its annual meeting that Wal-Mart will continue delivering strong results even while becoming more disciplined on new store spending.

Jefferies analyst Daniel Binder raised his rating on the company's shares from "hold" to "buy" and increased a price target on the shares to $88 from $74.

"We are upgrading shares to Buy as (Wal-Mart) gains firmer footing to propel the turnaround story beyond easy sales comparisons," Binder wrote in a Friday research note.

He said the company's inventory management is improving in the United States, and international growth is slowing while the company works to improve existing locations, "a theme that we have seen play out favorably in retail before."

The analyst also said Wal-Mart's decision to open a larger number of small-format stores has great appeal due to the return they generate. He noted that the stores cost less to build, and sales have come in better than expected.

Shares of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. set an all-time high Wednesday at $76.61, and closed at $75.01. Shares climbed 61 cents in premarket trading Friday morning to $75.62.