Wal-Mart beats expectations

Wal-Mart Stores, the world’s largest retailer, reported a higher-than-expected 2.6 percent rise in same-store sales in February, excluding gas sales. It forecast an increase of up to 2 percent for March. ( Strong international results helped push net sales at the entire company up 8.9 percent, to $29.19 billion. (MarketWatch) Wal-Mart cut prices by as much as 30 percent on items like groceries, medicine, and electronics to draw customers hit by high gas prices and mortgage concerns. “In a softening economy, Wal-Mart is better positioned than most other retailers because of its lower-end pricing,” said Bruce Brewington at Berkeley Capital Management. (Bloomberg)

Fidelity settles over free gifts

Fidelity Investments agreed to pay the Securities and Exchange Commission $8 million to settle civil charges that 13 employees had accepted $1.6 million worth of gifts from brokers seeking Fidelity business. (MarketWatch) The SEC said that Vice Chairman Peter Lynch, a former star portfolio manager, and the other 12 employees had collectively accepted free travel, entertainment, and drugs from, and maintained romantic and family relationships with, unidentified brokers. “It was a highly embarrassing episode for Fidelity,” said mutual-fund consultant Burton Greenwald. “It created a real blemish on a reputation that it took them years to build.” (Bloomberg)

H&R Block pares losses

Top U.S. tax preparer H&R Block reported a $47.4 million quarterly loss, an improvement over its $60.3 million loss a year earlier. The company said that 3.5 percent fewer people visited its retail tax shops in the quarter, but revenue was up due to higher fees. It blamed a slow start to the tax season due to late federal changes to the Alternative Minimum Tax. (AP in Yahoo! Finance) Without charges tied to layoffs and executive departures, especially in its defunct Option One Mortgage unit, the company said it would have earned $25 million, beating analysts’ forecasts. On Tuesday, No. 2 U.S. tax preparer Jackson Hewitt reported a greater-than-expected 34 drop in quarterly profits. (Reuters)

Mixed math for the movie business

Worldwide box office revenue hit a record high of $26.7 billion last year, including $9.6 billion from the U.S. and Canada, according to new figures from the Motion Picture Association of America. But for Hollywood, the gains aren’t quite so straightforward. First of all, the 5 percent growth in sales is lower than the 6 percent jump in what movie studios spent to make and market a film—and that doesn’t include the $1.3 billion in outside financing from banks and hedge funds. All told, it cost $81.6 million on average to make a movie last year. “It’s not a cheap exercise, but people continue to believe it’s worthwhile,” said MPAA executive Dean Garfield. (Los Angeles Times, free registration)