ATLANTA — Strains in the nation's housing sector emerged in the aisles of Home Depot, a store with a reputation for consistently delivering surprises to the upside for its investors.
In the final quarter of the year, Home Depot fell short on profit, revenue and same-stores sales as rising real estate prices cast a chill over U.S. home sales.
Shares fell 5 percent Tuesday before the opening bell. If that decline persists into regular trading, it would be the biggest one-day decline in the past year for a company very adept at navigating good times and bad in the housing market.
The company projected that comparable-store sales growth, a key gauge of health in the retail industry, would not be as strong this year as it was in 2018.
The National Association of Realtors said last week that sales of existing homes dropped 1.2 percent in January to their worst pace in more than three years. During the past 12 months, sales have tumbled 8.5 percent.
Would-be homebuyers are increasingly priced out of the market as years of climbing prices and slim housing inventories put ownership out of reach for many Americans.
Those declines can ripple out to companies that sell materials like Home Depot and its rival, Lowe's, which slid in tandem with Home Depot in early trading.
The latest numbers also show contracts to buy homes dipped to the lowest level since early 2014, and those declines were seen in every region of the country, including a 13.5 percent plunge in the South, which is generally the nation's fastest growing region for housing.
"A material slowdown in the housing market - where both sales and prices have been under pressure for some time - has stymied demand for home improvement products," wrote Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail. "In our view, this has likely affected the momentum of growth at Home Depot."
For the three months ended Feb. 3, Home Depot earned $2.34 billion, or $2.09 per share, for the three months ended Feb. 3. That's far short of the per-share earnings of $2.22 Wall Street was looking for, according to a survey by FactSet, though an extra week in the period helped push profit and sales higher.
A year ago the Atlanta home improvement retailer earned $1.78 billion, or $1.52 per share.
The current quarter was also nicked by a one-time charge or 16 cents per share.
Revenue climbed to $26.49 billion, from $23.88 billion, with the extra week adding approximately $1.7 billion in sales. But that that too, was short of forecasts.
Sales at stores open at least a year rose 3.2 percent, also missing Wall Street projections of a 4.5 percent bump. In the U.S., same-store sales increased 3.7 percent.
Comparable-store sales are a key indicator of a retailer's health because it excludes volatility from stores that were recently opened or closed.
Its profit guidance for 2019 issued Tuesday was for $10.03 per share, which is also below Wall Street projections for $10.26.
There was some optimism from Home Depot Inc. about the year ahead.
The company announced Tuesday that it is raising its quarterly dividend 32 percent to $1.36 per share. It also forecast strong sales growth of about 3.3 percent and announced a $15 billion stock buyback program.
Home Depot, under CEO and Chairman Craig Menear, has been steady in delivering outsized profits and revenue quarter after quarter and he voiced optimism about the current year.
"Our view on the health of the economy and the consumer, as well as the momentum of our strategic investments, supports our belief that we can deliver comparable sales growth of 5.0 percent in fiscal 2019," Menear said in a prepared statement.
That's better than the 4.3 percent increase that Wall Street analysts had been expecting, but it's not as strong as the 5.2 percent increase seen in 2018.
Despite the early sell-off in shares, industry analysts like Saunders were still impressed with the way Home Depot has operated in a worsening housing environment.
"Home Depot's comparable sales increases actually look even more respectable - in essence, they show the company is able to pull other levers to secure growth, even as economic fundamentals weaken," Saunders said.
Shares of Lowe's Companies Inc., which reports earnings on Wednesday, slid 3 percent.