Among traditional retailers, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) remains the giant of the industry. Having established its leadership role by offering the widest possible assortment of merchandise at competitively low prices, Wal-Mart has built up one of the largest workforces in the world and commands an extensive network of stores and distribution centers.
Wal-Mart's success has been profitable for its shareholders as well, with the stock having hit new record highs during 2017. When the share price briefly moved above the $100 per mark in November, some investors started to speculate about whether the company would do something it hasn't done since before the turn of the millennium: split its stock. Wal-Mart now seems to have recovered from a long slump in the retail industry, and that could bode well for those looking for further share-price gains. Let's look more closely at Wal-Mart to see whether a stock split might be in the cards for 2018.
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When has Wal-Mart split its stock?
As you can see below, after having made stock splits part of its corporate culture for nearly 30 years, Wal-Mart has gone through an almost 20-year drought of choosing not to make any moves on the stock split front.
Looking back at Wal-Mart's split history, you can see the record of consistency. Splits tended to come every few years at fairly predictable intervals, and the retailer always chose to do standard 2-for-1 splits rather than using different ratios.
However, a closer look reveals some unusual aspects to Wal-Mart's behavior in deciding when to do stock splits. For instance, Wal-Mart's first two splits in the early 1970s came when the stock traded just below $50 per share, a fairly low number compared to its peers at the time. The 1975 split came at just $23 per share, which was nearly unheard of as a trigger point for making such a move. Throughout most of its history, Wal-Mart was comfortable doing splits when the stock price rose into the range of $50 to $70 per share, and only the most recent move in 1999 came after the shares had risen into triple-digit territory briefly.
A stagnant period for Wal-Mart
Wal-Mart's stock performance during much of the past 15 years hasn't really warranted consideration of a stock split. In the 2000s, the retailer focused on quietly building out its domestic and international store base, and it also started to move into the grocery business with its even larger supercenter locations. Yet the challenges involved in penetrating that low-margin segment didn't build overwhelming confidence among shareholders, and the stock generally relied on its dividends to produce a positive return throughout much of the period.
In the early 2010s, a host of other factors held back Wal-Mart's stock performance. On one hand, the surge of interest in internet-based e-commerce retailers put pressure on Wal-Mart to build out its own online presence, but the brick-and-mortar giant was somewhat slow on the uptake in making the necessary strategic shifts to modernize its business. On the other hand, other big-box retailers made their own pushes to compete more effectively, and that made it even harder for Wal-Mart to defend its traditional territory even as it sought new avenues for growth.
In the past two years, however, Wal-Mart has rebounded convincingly. Same-store sales gains have returned to its physical store locations, and investments in labor and website optimization have paid off. Even as many of its competitors have struggled through store closings and bankruptcy filings, Wal-Mart has been able to start moving in the right direction again.
Will Wal-Mart split its stock in 2018?
Even with the stock hitting new heights, Wal-Mart investors shouldn't count on a stock split in the coming year. The rules that most companies follow in guiding their stock split decisions have changed over the years, and the $100-per-share mark no longer implies an immediate need for a split. Moreover, Wal-Mart's membership among the price-weighted Dow Jones Industrials makes it useful for the retailer to maintain its current high share price, in large part because about half of the Dow's 30 stocks trade at triple-digit levels right now.
Some Wal-Mart investors might be disappointed if the company doesn't split its stock, yet they should celebrate the strong returns they've seen recently. Wal-Mart has proven that it isn't doomed to be a victim of the e-commerce revolution, and it's putting itself in the best possible position to survive and thrive in the years to come.
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