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Does Costco Wholesale Corporation (COST) Deserve Its High Stock Price?

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The second quarter of Costco Wholesale Corporation (NASDAQ:COST)’s fiscal year ended in mid February, with strong results for the membership discount retailer. Revenue, over 95% of which comes from sales as opposed to membership fees, was up 8% compared to the same period in the previous fiscal year. This was essentially in line with Costco’s performance in fiscal Q1. While costs were up as well, the company expanded its margins and pretax income grew 18% for the quarter versus a year earlier (earnings growth was higher due to a lower effective tax rate).

While the company is doing well, the market is currently pricing in high earnings growth at Costco Wholesale Corporation (NASDAQ:COST). The stock is trading at 23 times trailing earnings, representing a substantial premium to other discount retailers. Earnings growth has been high, but lower effective tax rates is not a sustainable source of bottom-line growth and over time we’d expect it to become more difficult to Costco to grow its margins. While sales have been doing well, that growth rate might not be enough to justify the current stock price. Wall Street analysts expect only moderate improvements, and so the forward P/E comes out to 21. Costco does have limited exposure to the broader economy with a beta of 0.5, but betas at that level are common among discount retailers.

hedge fund research

We can learn which hedge funds and other major investors owned Costco Wholesale Corporation (NASDAQ:COST) shares as of the beginning of January by turning to our database of 13F filings, which we primarily use to develop investing strategies (we have found, for example, that the most popular small cap stocks among hedge funds outperform the S&P 500 by 18 percentage points per year on average). Our records show that Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway owned 4.3 million shares of Costco at the end of the fourth quarter of 2012; while 13F data is a little old, Buffett tends to have a longer time horizon for his investments and likely still has a position of some size (find Buffett’s favorite stocks). Renaissance Technologies, founded by billionaire Jim Simons, increased its stake to a total of 1.7 million shares see Renaissance’s stock picks).

The closest peers for Costco are Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) and Target Corporation (NYSE:TGT). These two companies trade about even with each other, and at considerable discounts to Costco as we’d alluded to above. Specifically, their trailing earnings multiples are in the 15-16 range. Wal-Mart’s last quarterly report showed moderate earnings growth from a year ago, although some reports have indicated that the retailer is struggling in the current quarter (of course the same may be true for Costco as well, if it is because of general economic conditions). Target’s recent earnings numbers have been a bit weaker, and with its beta being a bit higher than Wal-Mart’s as well it doesn’t seem to be as good a buy; if the company can produce at least some growth, however, it too might look interesting at its current discount to Costco Wholesale Corporation (NASDAQ:COST).

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