Shares of Clorox Co. fell more than 15 percent today after the maker of such household staples as SOS pads and Pine Sol cleaner reported that sales slid, although earnings met Wall Street expectations, and that the company would face $23 million in charges in fiscal 2000.

The New York Stock Exchange dive also was prompted by PaineWebber's decision to cut its rating on Clorox, while Merrill Lynch cut its profit estimates for the company.

PaineWebber cut Clorox's rating to neutral from attractive, and Merrill Lynch cut its forecast for fiscal 2000 earnings to $3.51 a share from $3.75.

"We are lowering our estimates," Merrill Lynch analyst Heather Hay said in a report. "The bulk of the estimate changes relate to outlook for the 1st half of FY00 [fiscal 2000], in particular the September quarter, which the company had previously been expected to be up mid-single digits is now expected to be down 14 percent related to a variety of factors."

The poor outlook sent Clorox stock sliding in early-afternoon trading. At 2 p.m. EDT, the Oakland, Calif.-based company's shares were down 17 points at $86 in heavy trading on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares closed at $86.31 1/4 today.

In a conference call with analysts, Karen Rose, Clorox chief financial officer, said net customer sales were down 2.6 percent in the fiscal fourth quarter, ended June 30.

"The number is still weaker than what we anticipated," she said. "The reason is almost every business unit came in slightly below what we though each would, and Brita [water filters] was much weaker versus our own expectation for the quarter."

Clorox Chairman Craig Sullivan said in a statement that First Brands' aggressive trade-promotion practices before its merger with Clorox in January were mainly to blame.

"We anticipated a short-term negative impact associated with changing the marketing and sales practices for First Brands products," Sullivan said.

In its earnings report, Clorox said it faced further charges in fiscal 2000 after taking charges of $79 million in the fourth quarter for a restructuring and its merger with First Brands.