A vote of confidence from management just doesn't carry much weight in these scandal-ridden times -- even when the management in question is highly respected.
Witness Monday's trading in
, the Atlanta-based home improvement retailer whose name is practically synonymous with the last decade's boom in America's service economy.
The company's shares were flat Monday after Home Depot reaffirmed its earnings outlook and set a big stock buyback program. The company made the announcements in response to last week's sharp selloff in its stock, but investors mostly overlooked Home Depot's optimism and continued to scramble for safety in a plunging stock market -- even though some observers say the company's shares look like a bargain by some measures.
"We believe strongly in the fundamental strength of The Home Depot," said Bob Nardelli, chairman and CEO, in a statement. "This repurchase announcement is not only a vote of confidence in our business and our associates but for our loyal shareholders as well."
Investors have increasingly had their doubts about the company's stock, however. After a long surge that made it one of the best-performing stocks of the last decade, Home Depot shares have underperformed over the last year or so as Wall Street has reassessed the company's prospects. Home Depot rose 11 cents to $29.20.
In fact, Home Depot shares have cratered this year as investors have begun to fret in earnest about how much the company can grow. Home Depot operates close to 1,400 stores, many more than upstart rival
, which has gradually become the favorite of many portfolio managers and other investors. That's because Lowe's is a younger company whose new stores are seen as less likely to cannibalize existing outlets, among other reasons.
Seeking to shore up its share price and send a signal to investors that management is confident in the company's future, Home Depot said Monday that it approved a $2 billion share repurchase plan. But such is the degree of cynicism on Wall Street that a blue-chip company without even a whiff of accounting worries can't get any mileage from such a bullish announcement.
Home Depot also said Monday that it is comfortable with the current consensus earnings estimate of 47 cents a share in the second quarter, which it is scheduled to report on Aug. 20. It also affirmed its three-year guidance of 15% to 18% annual sales growth, and 18% to 20% annual earnings growth through fiscal 2004.
Home Depot shares are now off 42% on the year. The stock hit a new 52-week low on July 12, amid
fresh worries that the home improvement giant's fast-growing days were over. The Home Depot vs. Lowe's debate stretches back to last year, but in 2002 Lowe's surpassed its larger rival on valuation.
Lowe's, which has lately posted stronger same-store sales figures, operates around 800 stores. It has lately begun a push into metropolitan markets on the West Coast and mid-Atlantic states, and that has put it in direct competition with Home Depot. Lowe's stock was off $1.03 lately, at $39.15.
But with Home Depot shares now trading at such low levels, some analysts now say the stock looks attractive, even if growth worries linger.
"I still have concerns about growth," says Peter Benedict, who covers both Home Depot and Lowe's for CIBC World Markets. "But I think at the valuation the stock is trading at, you've got a pretty good risk-reward."
He says Home Depot's current valuation of about 18 times this year's estimated earnings estimate puts the stock is at its lowest valuation in at least 10 years.