Lowe's Cos. , the world's second-largest home improvement retailer, on Monday reported a 55 percent rise in fiscal fourth-quarter profit and said first quarter and fiscal 2002 earnings would top current estimates as the U.S. economy strengthens and consumers invest in their homes. 

For the quarter ended Feb. 1, Lowe's had net income of $218.4 million, or 28 cents a diluted share, topping the Thomson Financial/First Call analyst consensus estimate of 25 cents. A year earlier, Lowe's earned $140.8 million, or 18 cents a share. 

"An excellent quarter," said Colin McGranahan, an analyst at Sanford Bernstein, who added Lowe's raised guidance for the fiscal year "pretty healthfully." 

McGranahan said Lowe's expectation of $1.55 to $1.58 in per-share earnings for the current fiscal year significantly exceeded analysts' current consensus estimates of $1.53. 

McGranahan said that Lowe's, which has been setting up stores in large metropolitan markets where Home Depot had been the only major player for years, can easily increase earnings by 20 percent annually. "They should be growing earnings at least 22-23 percent," he added. 

For fiscal 2001, Lowe's earnings grew 26 percent to $1.02 billion. For fiscal 2003, Lowe's said it expected per-share earnings would rise about 20 percent. 

Both Lowe's, of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and its main rival, No. 1 home improvement company Home Depot Inc. , were expected to post strong fourth quarters on strength in the U.S. housing market. Mortgage rates reached historic lows in the period, spurring home purchases and refinancings. 

Atlanta-based Home Depot reports earnings on Tuesday. 

For the first quarter ending in May, Lowe's said it expects per-share earnings of 35 cents to 36 cents, above current analyst consensus estimates of 34 cents. 

In a statement, Lowe's Chairman Robert Tillman said Americans remain willing to invest in their homes despite general economic weakness. "We are well positioned to capitalize on a strengthening economy and a resilient consumer in 2002," Tillman said. 

Fiscal fourth-quarter sales rose 15.6 percent to $5.3 billion from $4.5 billion. Comparable-store sales, an important measure of sales at stores open at least a year, rose 7.4 percent, compared with a 3 percent decline a year earlier. 

During the quarter, Lowe's opened 16 new stores. For the year, Lowe's opened 115 stores. As of Feb. 1, Lowe's had 744 stores in 42 American states.