Good quarter: Home Depot's first-quarter sales were up 8.1% to $18.97 billion but fell below the lowest analyst estimate, which was $19.05 billion. Earnings came in at $0.57 a share, beating analyst estimates by $0.02. Beating earnings estimates is always good, but Lowe's, which didn't beat estimates, had a 14.2% increase in sales and a 30.5% increase in earnings.
Records: The company's press release trumpets a record gross margin of 33.5%. Hey, those are the kinds of records shareholders want. But, it pales just a (tiny) bit when you consider Lowe's first-quarter gross margin was 34.5%. Lowe's is getting more out of every sales dollar at the top line.
What does stand up is Home Depot's record 10.5% operating margin. Lowe's is a more modest 9.7%. So, before you account for taxes, Home Depot wrings more income out of every dollar.
The balance sheet: Home Depot's cash and short-term investments decreased by $1.3 billion since the year-ago quarter, and long-term debt increased by $1 billion. At Lowe's, cash decreased by $180 million and total debt decreased by $57 million -- a minimal change but nothing like the changes at Home Depot, which reflect heavy investments made in both remodeling and new stores.
The future: Home Depot confirmed that it expects 9% to 12% overall sales growth in the current fiscal year, and expects earnings will increase 10% to 14% per share. Lowe's expects 17% sales growth and earnings increases on about the same order.
The bottom line: Based on current quarter results, and the fact that broader measures like return on assets and return on equity are not very different between the two, the relative premium of 17 times current-year expected earnings afforded to the faster-growing Lowe's is justified (compared with 15 times for Home Depot) -- although both look like good long-term investments.