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The End of the Mac & Cheese Trade

Stocks in this article: WMT M JWN

Let's dig into some of the recent retail earnings reports and extract evidence of the end of the trade-down effect.

Inferior/Low End: Wal-Mart (WMT) reported reported fourth-quarter 2010 EPS of $1.17 vs. analyst estimates of $1.12. The company benefited from strong international sales but missed out on revenue expectations due to disappointing sales in the U.S., where same-store comps fell 1.6%.

At the same time, Wal-Mart warned that it was expecting soft sales for the first-quarter and fiscal-year 2011, evident in its guidance for fiscal-year EPS of $3.90 to $4 vs. analysts' expectations of $3.97. This would imply earnings growth of 7% to 9% in the coming year.

Target (TGT), another low-end retailer, echoed Wal-Mart's results with a better fourth quarter while also tempering expectations for the first quarter and coming year.

Normal/Middle Market: Nationwide department store Macy's (M) reported fourth-quarter 2009 EPS of $1.40 vs. analysts' estimates of $1.32. For its fiscal-year 2010, Macy's expects to earn $1.55 to $1.60 per share, which straddles analysts' estimates of $1.57 per share. The midpoint of the guidance implies year-over-year earnings growth of 12%. Management expects same-store comps to increase 1% to 2% after declining 5.3% for 2009.

Luxury/High End: Investors key in on two prominent high-end retailers: Nordstom (JWN) and Tiffany. This week, Nordstrom reported a very strong quarter. The media's observation that Nordstrom missed earnings estimates by 2 cents might be correct, but it's misleading. After reporting strong sales for the month of January, management informed investors to expect the company to handily exceed its previous earnings outlook. Since its last reporting earnings, analysts moved up its earnings expectations for Nordstrom by 14 cents. Clearly, they were too aggressive. Earnings are expected to rise by 24% for Nordstrom in 2010.

Tiffany will report its earnings on March 22.

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