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Home Depot Raises Operating Goals, Buyback

-- Long-term operating margin, return-on-investment goals raised -- Company expects to hit prior targets ahead of schedule -- Benefits from buyback boost seen materializing next year Home Depot Inc. (HD), anticipating it would hit long-term operating goals ahead of schedule, raised those targets alongside a $500 million boost to planned share repurchases Wednesday. The nation's largest home-improvement retailer, which will further detail its goals at an analyst and investor day later Wednesday, now expects operating margin of 12% and return on invested capital of 24% for fiscal year 2015. It anticipated reaching its prior goals for 10% and 15%, respectively, by the end of this year, about a year ahead of the schedule it set in late 2010. Analysts widely expected Home Depot would boost the long-term goals. Home Depot also predicted repurchasing around $4 billion in shares this year, a $500 million increase. The company doesn't see the increase having an impact on full-year per-share earnings because of timing, but Credit Suisse analyst Gary Balter said in a note the buybacks should be beneficial next year and beyond. Balter also noted that Home Depot's 12% margin goal could very well turn out to be conservative, citing opportunity to improve direct sourcing, assumed strengthening in housing over coming years and potential market share gains from struggling Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD). The company will discuss the basis for its new targets--as well as its plans for customer-service strategy, merchandising shifts, investments and e-commerce--at the conference later this morning. Lately, business has strengthened for both Home Depot and smaller rival Lowe's Cos. (LOW), but it has been unclear whether demand stemmed from a strengthening economy, housing recovery or early spring-season shopping thanks to one of the mildest U.S. winters on record. In its latest quarterly results, Home Depot's earnings rose 27%, but its top-line growth wasn't as robust as expected, especially given the help from unseasonably warm weather. Chief Executive Frank Blake said at the time that stripping out benefits from the temperate spring, Home Depot's results reflected gross domestic product growth but not recovery in the housing market, which he said remains under pressure. That caused a pullback in Home Depot's stock, which had been rallying this year primarily on optimism about improvement in housing. Shares of the company, which affirmed its full-year earnings and revenue guidance, were up at 1% at $49.40 premarket Wednesday. The stock has outperformed the wider market this year, rising 16% in 2012 through the close. Write to Joan E. Solsman at joan.solsman@dowjones.com and Kristin Jones at kristin.jones@dowjones.com

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