Updated from 10:22 a.m. EST Target ( TGT) continues to hit the mark, but investors worried Thursday that economic weakness may hurt its aim later this year. The discounter, which has gained a reputation for making bargain shopping cool, topped Wall Street's earnings estimate by a penny Thursday. But the stock fell 5% in midday trading as Target declined to offer earnings guidance for 2002, other than to say its projections look achievable. Target reported fourth-quarter earnings of 73 cents a share on revenue of $13.24 billion. On average, analysts expected earnings of 72 cents a share and sales of $13.25 billion. The company, based in Minneapolis, affirmed its long-term goal of 15% annual earnings-per-share growth, but didn't offer guidance for 2002. Investors were buoyed early by the last six months' strong performance at discounters; Thursday morning's revised gross domestic product report also showed the economy picking up sharply during the fourth quarter, which suggests the risk of a retail-battering deep recession has been at least temporarily averted. But the stock slipped around midday as the company said another bout of economic weakness could weaken 2002 results. Target slipped $2 to $41.90. Shares have risen more than 66% since the market bottomed in the wake of Sept. 11, as investors bet that discounters would fare well amid the recession. Target won over Wall Street last year, and at least some analysts now say it is a
better investment than its much larger rival Wal-Mart ( WMT). In early January Target reported a strong holiday performance and boosted its fourth-quarter guidance. But Thursday's selloff showed once again that even a bit of uncertainty can undermine even the strongest performers in the retail sector.