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DID HOME DEPOT’S WEAK EARNINGS CAUSE PANIC?

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Investors in retailing stocks got an unpleasant surprise earlier this month when Home Depot Inc., long immune to the down sides of the economy and stock market, reported first-quarter earnings that were weaker than Wall Street expected.

In a classic case of paranoia, investors sold off Home Depot stock and the stocks of other retailers that reported results short of expectations. But retail industry analysts say the market overreacted to Home Depot's numbers."Don't overanalyze it," said Jeffrey Feiner at the investment firm Salomon Brothers Inc.

By the time storeowners began announcing first-quarter results early in May, investors had heard three months' worth of disappointing sales figures from many of the big discount, apparel and department stores hurt by slow consumer spending. So the market was prepared for falling profits from many retail companies.

But Home Depot shocked investors with its announcement Tuesday that it earned $157.8 million, an improvement of 13 percent from a year earlier but below analyst predictions. The problem was the cool and rainy weather that prevented homeowners from doing outside work on their houses.

The interesting part is that Home Depot's problems were likely to be a one-shot deal. The weather will improve. So will business. It's not like the company is suffering a long-term malaise.

So why the panic?

Donald Trott, who follows Home Depot and other specialty retailers for Dean Witter Reynolds Inc., said that historically, the company has let the market know when it expected business to be off its usual pace. But this past quarter, Home Depot kept expecting the weather and sales to improve, and so the company didn't tip its hand.

Wall Street hates surprises. "The absence of a pre-announcement exacerbated" the market's reaction, Trott said.

Feiner said, "the real point was how myopic the market was." He noted that Home Depot stock had been bid up to the $44-a-share level the previous week by investors expecting lower interest rates to help the home improvement business.

"Most people knew they were going to report a disappointing first quarter," he said. "It doesn't even matter" to the market if Home Depot's first-quarter problems were a one-time occurrence.

Trott said investors may also have let their disgruntlement with other retailers - especially those being hurt by the slowing economy - color their reaction to Home Depot.

"How much do you say is weather and how much is macro?" he said. "I can't segregate it and no one can, but obviously a more robust economy is better for any of these companies."

Home Depot and other home-based retailers like Hechinger Co. and Lowes Cos. have a big edge over apparel merchants. When warmer weather does settle in, sales of paint and lumber will pick up.

But Trott, voicing the feeling held by many analysts, said "apparel has been crummy for sometime and we believe it will remain crummy."

A big reason why: Consumers continue to spend more on their homes than on their wardrobes.