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The purpose of this article is to discuss Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) and its attractiveness as an investment option. I will review the company's past performance, most recent annual and quarterly statements, and offer some insight on where the stock may be headed in the future. I will specifically look at WMT's dividend history, to determine if the stock is a wise choice for retirees, IRA accounts, investors who simply prefer less risk and the steady income stream dividend payments provide.

First, a little about WMT. WMT operates retail stores in various formats around the world. WMT operates in three business segments: the Wal-Mart U.S. segment, the Wal-Mart International segment, and the Sam's Club segment. WMT U.S. is the largest segment in terms of operating stores, revenues and profits. Its Wal-Mart International segment consists of retail operations in 26 countries. Its Sam's Club segment consists of membership warehouse clubs operated in 47 states in the United States and Puerto Rico, as well as online. The company is known for its "Everyday low prices (EDLP)" pricing philosophy and competes with major retailers such as Target (NYSE:TGT), grocery stores such as Harris Teeter (NYSE:HTSI), and discount stores such as Dollar General (NYSE:DG).

Currently, WMT is trading at $78.50/share. Recently, the stock has performed strongly. Year-to-date WMT is up over 15% and over the last 52 weeks the stock is up over 32%. In addition to this stock appreciation, WMT also pays a quarterly dividend of $.47/share. Based on today's market price, this translates to an annual yield of 2.40%. WMT's dividend is one of the main reasons why I like this stock. While the yield is under 3% (what I normally look for), this is mainly due to such rapid stock appreciation. WMT normally has a yield in the 2-3% range, and the stock has performed so strongly that the yield has come down, even with the latest dividend increase. However, what I really like about the dividend policy is the company's commitment to raising the payout, consistently. WMT has NEVER decreased its dividend and the company has been paying dividends for about 25 years. Even during the 2008-09 recession, WMT increased its dividend payout. Here is a look at WMT's most recent dividend history, tracking annual payouts for the previous 10 fiscal years:

Fiscal Year 2013

Annual Dividend Rate Total: $1.59

Fiscal Year 2012

Annual Dividend Rate Total: $1.46

Fiscal Year 2011

Annual Dividend Rate Total: $1.21

Fiscal Year 2010

Annual Dividend Rate Total: $1.09

Fiscal Year 2009

Annual Dividend Rate Total: $0.95

Fiscal Year 2008

Annual Dividend Rate Total: $0.88

Fiscal Year 2007

Annual Dividend Rate Total: $0.67

Fiscal Year 2006

Annual Dividend Rate Total: $0.60

Fiscal Year 2005

Annual Dividend Rate Total: $0.52

Fiscal Year 2004

Annual Dividend Rate Total: $0.36

Fiscal Year 2003

Annual Dividend Rate Total: $0.30

For the current year, the annual payout will be $1.88, barring any unforeseen change. Therefore, while the yield is currently under 3%, with WMT's history of increasing its dividend payout, the yield is likely to rise in the future. If it doesn't, it will be because WMT's stock has continued to swiftly appreciate; thus investors will win in either scenario. Not many companies have such a stellar track record with respect to dividends, so WMT really sets itself apart with this history.

To get a better sense of how WMT may perform in the future, I examined the company's 2013 annual report and its 4th-quarter report from February, for fiscal year 2013. I saw some key trends that make me optimistic about the stock. First, total revenues keep rising. They have risen every year since 2009, and revenues are up 5% in FY 2013 over FY 2012. Second, gross profit margin has stayed relatively flat during the five-year period. While I normally would want to see this rise, given that WMT competes by offering the lowest price and that those years represent a time period that included a recession and mild recovery, maintaining its gross profit margin at over 24% during that time period is impressive. Clearly, there would have been tremendous pressures on WMT to cut costs and lower prices, and the company seems to have met that challenge during a very difficult economic period. It stands to reason the company should continue to be as successful, if not more, as the economic recovery gathers steam.

Third, WMT is seeing increasing growth in its international segment in terms of percentage of sales. With the U.S. market becoming saturated, WMT needs to look overseas to maintain its historic growth. It appears to be succeeding because Wal-Mart International had the highest growth rate in sales from FY 2012 to 2013 at 7.4%, compared with 3.9% and 4.9% for Wal-Mart U.S. and Sam's Club, respectively. As a percent of total sales, Wal-Mart International now makes up 29% of WMT's net sales, compared with 28.4% the year before. Since this is the fastest growing area for WMT, it is encouraging to see WMT making positive strides in this area. For most large U.S. companies, WMT included, I expect growth to come from emerging markets in Central and South America and Asia. WMT is out in front of this trend and investors have been rewarded for it.

There are some risks to WMT that should be noted. First, the company is currently embroiled in lawsuits with the U.S. Justice Department over a bribery scandal in Mexico. This fact highlights the risks that U.S. companies face when expanding internationally and operating in countries that have different values and business customs than we do. Such scandals hurt the stock price in the short term and also hinder a company's ability to be successful in that market. Second, according to the annual report, cost of sales rose at a higher rate than net sales revenue from the FY 2012-2013 period by 5.2% and 5.0%, respectively. While this is only a minor difference, it highlights the extremely competitive environment that WMT operates in, and shows that its costs to make those sales are increasing disproportionately. While the difference is slight, this will be a number I will look at during every quarterly and annual report. If that trend stays the same, it could certainly cause trouble for the stock. Third, WMT has seen increased pressure from discount stores such as Dollar General and Family Dollar. Consumers have flocked to these stores during the recession for their rock bottom prices and took some business away from WMT. I believe that as the economy recovers and consumer spending picks back up, consumers will again return to stores like WMT and Target, and abandon those dollar stores. However, that is just my opinion. Many consumers may have built some brand loyalty with these dollar stores and may continue to shop there rather than "trade up" in the near term. WMT will need to prove its value to these consumers to convince them to return.

Bottomline: WMT is the leading global retailer whose stock has rewarded investors handsomely in the form of stock appreciation and dividend growth. The company is operating in markets that offer continued opportunity for growth, especially internationally and online. With consumers still being very cost conscious, WMT offers enormous value and continues to lead in sales around the U.S., its largest market. With a proven track record for increasing profits, relentlessly cutting costs, and an impressive dividend history, WMT offers investors a solid growth opportunity. With stable cash flows and a low beta of .35, indicating it is much less volatile than the market as a whole, WMT can provide both income and safety.

Disclosure: I am long WMT. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.