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The Boston Globe

Business

Walmart wary about economy even as profit rises

NEW YORK — Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, on Thursday reported an 8.6 percent rise in quarterly profit, due to a smaller tax rate, but offered a tempered forecast as the lower- to lower-middle income shoppers it caters to struggle with delayed tax refunds and higher payroll taxes.

Walmart Stores Inc. is among several companies, including Burger King and the jewelry retailer Zale, that have warned shoppers are being hurt by smaller paychecks and delayed tax refunds. Because Walmart accounts for nearly 10 percent of US nonautomotive retail spending, it is seen as a bellwether.

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While Walmart’s results for the fourth quarter were promising, its expectations for the near future signal that many Americans are still pinched.

‘‘Walmart moms are the barometer of the US household,’’ said Brian Sozzi, at NBG Productions.

Walmart said that while it had a strong start to the holiday shopping season in November, business has been volatile since December.

February, in particular, has been ‘‘slower than planned,’’ largely due to the Internal Revenue Service’s decision to delay accepting tax returns by eight days until Jan. 30 because the government had not reached agreement on the US budget.

Walmart also said it’s unclear how the payroll tax increase, implemented last month when the government let a temporary 2 percentage point cut in Social Security taxes expire, will affect spending.

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JP Morgan estimates the increase equates to $70 a month less in take-home pay for Walmart shoppers, assuming an annual income of $42,500.

The company is doing things like offering smaller packages and less-expensive products.

In addition, Walmart said it still is grappling with allegations that surfaced in April that it failed to notify law enforcement that company officials had authorized millions of dollars in bribes in Mexico to speed up getting building permits and gain other favors. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act forbids US companies from bribing foreign officials.

The company is investigating and is working with US and Mexican officials.

In November, the retailer said it was looking into potential bribery law violations in Brazil, China, and India.

In the fourth quarter, Wal-Mart earned $5.6 billion, or $1.67 per share, up from $5.16 billion, or $1.50 per share, a year earlier — helped by a lower tax rate of 27.7 percent, compared with 30.9 percent a year before. Sales rose 3.9 percent to $127.1 billion.

Earnings topped Wall Street estimates of $1.57 per share, but sales fell short of the $127.8 billion analysts were expecting.

During the current quarter, Wal-Mart says it expects earnings to range from $1.11 to $1.16 per share, below the $1.18 per share analysts polled by FactSet are expecting.

For the year, Wal-Mart expects earnings of between $5.20 and $5.40 per share. Analysts expect $5.38 per share.

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