We'll say this about Alan Greenspan: He sticks to his guns. Amid rising concerns over consumer debt, the Federal Reserve chairman affirmed his position today that, by and large, U.S. households are OK. With consumer spending accounting for a full two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, this is no small point.

Unlike Chairman Greenspan, we each exert about as much control over domestic GDP as over short-term interest rates. When it comes to our personal finances, however, we are masters of our own domains -- at least, we should be. As Mr. Greenspan points out, record-low interest rates are working in our favor. If they're not working in yours, head over to our Home and Credit centers to learn more.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

Hammering Lowe's Home

By W.D. Crotty

Lowe's (NYSE: LOW) , the No. 2 home-improvement retailer, nailed another quarter. In fact, fourth-quarter and full-year net income jumped 27.6%.

When compared to leader Home Depot(NYSE: HD), the weed that lurks in Lowe's balance sheet is its nearly $3.7 billion in debt. Home Depot has similar operating margins and a pristine 6% debt-to-equity ratio. At a still-manageable 39% debt to equity, is Lowe's faster growth worth paying a premium? If you plumb the year-end results and the balance sheet, the answer is yes.

Sales increased 18.1% last year, while inventories increased just 15.5%, implying a company that is getting better at managing inventories as it grows. Total debt -- that weed in the garden -- decreased $10 million. Although modest, the decrease implies that Lowe's has reached critical mass and can continue expanding by 18% a year, using operating cash flows to fund its rapid growth. Higher growth of both sales and earnings justifies Lowe's higher price-earnings multiple.

Where Home Depot shines like a new Kohler faucet is in free cash flow (a Fool's real friend). After capital expenses of $2.4 billion last year, Lowe's generated cash flow of $500 million. With almost $3 billion in free cash flow, Home Depot clearly has the resources to remain a threat, but Lowe's accelerating free cash flows do bear watching.

Meanwhile, Lowe's has guided analysts to expect sales growth of at least 17%, and earnings growth of 20%, for each of the next two years. Unlike El Paso(NYSE: EP), which I covered just a few days ago, Lowe's has the credibility to project that far into the future.

What might surprise you even more is that Lowe's enjoys excellent operating margins. Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT), whose 5.5% margins pale next to Lowe's 9.7%, trades at a higher price to earnings. Sounds like they need a price check at the NYSE. Target(NYSE: TGT) doesn't even come close at 6.2%, and even specialty retailer Williams-Sonoma(NYSE: WSM) falls short at 8.4%.

Let me hammer this home. Lowe's had a great quarter and a great year. It improved its balance sheet and expects to increase earnings by 44% over the next two years. Like the premium hardware it sells, there is a reason Lowe's costs more.

Fool contributor W.D. Crotty owns stock in Home Depot (poor guy) and will be covering Home Depot's results tomorrow.

Last Chance for the Best Stocks of 2004

While you'll have all year to read it, this is your last chance to buy Stocks 2004, our investment guide to the year ahead. That's right. We can't sell it forever. So, if you don't order it now, you're just going to have to wait until Stocks 2005 comes out, and that seems like such a long, long time away. Get 11 stock ideas in your hot little hands today. Analysts like Tom Gardner, Jeff Fischer, Zeke Ashton, and Matt Richey have worked hard to bring you the best picks of 2004, assessing valuation, expectations, and risk. Don't miss out. Stocks 2004 will only be on sale for four more days.

Campbell's Lukewarm Sales

By Seth Jayson

Back when we stalked the Earth in fur unitards, hot soup meant a lot of killing, cutting, and cooking. A century ago, Campbell(NYSE: CPB) redefined soup by condensing it and peddling it in cans. But these days, traditional soup sales are flagging, as Americans seem to find cans and pans as daunting as clubs and campfires.

As I remarked on Friday, convenience is one way to make up for soggy sales in the food business. Campbell is counting on a new generation of products that cut valuable seconds out of the heat-and-eat process. Last November, the famous soup giant was scrambling to meet demand for its new microwaveable bowls of Select Soups and the soda-can inspired, sippable "Soup at Hand" line.

For Q2 of 2004, sales volume of those familiar red-and-white cans was down, though price increases kept revenues flat. Luckily, ready-serve soup sales jumped 17% in both dollars and shipments. And, despite the Atkins craze, Campbell's carb-loaded biscuits and confectionery unit, its second-largest source of revenue, saw 13% sales growth.

Investors will want to cast a wary eye on the 9% rise in net sales -- to $2.1 billion -- that's being trumpeted in the headlines today. The dropping dollar contributed 5% of the bump, and price increases added another 2%. Currency fluctuations and price hikes do not make for the healthiest top-line growth.

At the bottom line, Q2 earnings amounted to $0.57 a share, a penny more than last year. That's nothing to write home about, but earnings are up 5% through the first six months of the fiscal year, to $1.08 -- not accounting for a goodwill impairment charge taken last year.

Estimates put 2004's earnings around $1.58. That represents a modest 4% jump over 2003 (unless you back out the abovementioned charge, in which case the estimates represent a 1.3% drop).

At around $27.50 per share, the firm trades near its 52-week high, sporting a price-to-earnings ratio of 17.5. That's similar to the P/Es of peers such as Progresso's parent General Mills(NYSE: GIS), although cheaper than Wyler's maker Heinz(NYSE: HNZ). But it looks too pricey, given Campbell's lackluster earnings growth.

Fool Contributor Seth Jayson owns cans of Campbell's Soup, but no shares of any company mentioned above.

Quote of Note

"Talent does what it can; genius does what it must." -- Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

Onward, Coach!

By Alyce Lomax

If you thought consumers would be all shopped out for the holidays, and that such retailers as Coach(NYSE: COH) might suffer winter sales doldrums, think again. It looks like lots of handbags and other leatherware were wrapped up for Valentine's Day sweethearts, because the retailer upped its earnings guidance today for the second half of the year.

Coach now expects earnings of $0.58 per diluted share, compared to last year's $0.33 per share, for the second half of the year, with sales of at least $615 million. Previous guidance suggested that earnings would come in at $0.48 per share, with $595 million in sales. For all of 2004, the company expects to deliver earnings of $1.24 per share, with sales of almost $1.3 billion.

Although third- and fourth-quarter earnings are expected to come in at $0.26 per share -- flat on a sequential basis -- analysts had previously expected earnings of $0.25 and $0.24 per share, respectively. Coach expects third- and fourth-quarter sales of $300 million and $315 million.

The news is hardly surprising, for anyone following Coach; upping guidance seems to be one of its pastimes. The company has been a consistent earnings performer, even against such odds as the recent recession. It said today that same-store sales in Japan -- an important growth region for Coach -- continue to perform strongly, with double-digit gains in Asia.

Last month, Coach posted an impressive second quarter, but the classy purse purveyor's high share price still leaves plenty to be desired. While the stock enjoyed a boost in pre-session trading, investors suddenly lost interest this morning. While Coach shoppers have an insatiable taste for nice things, the stock's still trading at about 30 times forward earnings and darn near its 52-week high. If investors snubbed the news, it's likely Coach shares still feel a bit too rich for many people's taste.

Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any companies mentioned.

Discussion Board of the Day: Microsoft

What do you think of Microsoft and its case against Lindows? What about Linux? Will it come to replace Windows one day as the operating system of choice? All this and more -- in the Microsoft discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

More on Fool.com Today

Chances are, 2003 treated you and your portfolio well. So give a little love back! Let Mathew Emmert help you Protect Your Dividends From the IRS.... Abbott Labs finally passed FDA muster with its Illinois diagnostics plant. Brian Gorman give you the full story on Abbot's new beginning in Abbott Cleans Up Its Act.... And don't miss out on 7-Eleven's metamorphosis from convenience-store-next-door to one-stop shopping powerhouse. 7-Eleven CEO Jim Keyes tells how his baby became the belle of the ball in The 7-Eleven Transformation.

In other news:

For a list of all our stories from today, see our Today's Headlines page.