3M Co. was able to eke out double-digit earnings growth for the fourth quarter despite lackluster sales. CEO Inge Thulin and Chief Financial Officer Nick Gangestad, though, are looking ahead to 2017 when they expect better global conditions and an improving energy sector to help grow revenue again.
3M officials had previously warned that revenue for the fourth quarter and full year were likely to be flat because of pressures from the strong U.S. dollar, which generally makes U.S.-made goods more expensive overseas. In some cases, 3M responded by lowering product prices, which improved its competitive standing abroad, Gangestad told analysts Tuesday.
Based upon improved industrial markets — plus hopes for revived growth in 3M’s energy and health care businesses, both of which saw revenue decreases in the fourth quarter — Thulin and Gangestad predict the company’s 2017 profits will reach $8.45 to $8.80 per share and sales should grow 1 to 3 percent.
For full-year 2016, 3M sales fell 0.5 percent to $30.1 billion while earnings rose to $8.16 per share, meeting analysts’ expectations.
In the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, sales increased 0.4 percent over the same period in 2016 to $7.33 billion, which missed the consensus expectation of analysts polled by Zack’s Investment Research.
Despite the revenue picture — which, on the positive side, was helped by an increase in sales for its auto, roofing and safety products — 3M boosted earnings 11 percent to $1.15 billion, or $1.88 per share. That beat estimates by a penny. 3M’s stock fell $2.54 to close at $175.97 Tuesday.
“The fourth quarter capped a successful year for our enterprise, as we posted double-digit growth in earnings-per-share, expanded margins and delivered robust cash flow,” Thulin told analysts during the conference call following Tuesday’s results. “We also made incremental investments to accelerate growth in core platforms, while returning significant cash to our shareholders.”
Many analysts saw the quarter as mixed, noting that only two of 3M’s five businesses — Industrial and Safety/Graphics — grew during the quarter. Industrial and Safety/Graphics are 3M’s two largest businesses.
The electronics and energy business continued to struggle as it had in past quarters. Revenue fell 1 percent amid unfavorable currency exchange rates and declines in display materials, electrical markets and renewable energy.
However, the health care and consumer units also saw slight but uncharacteristic revenue decreases during the quarter as demand for dental care, health information and office and stationery products fell slightly.
During the quarter, 3M enjoyed its strongest revenue boosts in Latin America, followed by Asia and the United States. Sales declined in Europe. Foreign currency exchange rates, like they have across multinational companies, reduced sales by 0.8 percent.
“Interestingly, the areas of strength and weakness across the portfolio have shifted dramatically in recent quarters,” said Edward Jones equity analyst Matt Arnold. “Consumer-facing businesses like health care and office were once leading the portfolio. But now they are lagging more than industrial end markets.”
Arnold also noted a shift in geographic strength away from developed markets.
“It would have been nice to see the consumer businesses continue its momentum when the industrial markets improved,” he said. “But it looks like it will take some patience before the company can fire on all cylinders.”
Thulin promised that the patience would pay off. Beyond the recovery in the energy sector, he said the health care unit should “gain further momentum as we move further into 2017.”
During fourth-quarter 2016, 3M invested $30 million across the health care business, which sees profit margins of 30 percent, officials said.
3M invested more than $100 million across several business last year with the idea of accelerating growth.
Thulin said he was pleased to see growth return to 3M’s industrial division, its largest business. Sales rose 3 percent during the quarter.
That didn’t go unnoticed. Industrial “growth jumped pretty meaningfully,” said Credit Suisse equity research analyst Julian Mitchell.
Some analysts wondered if 3M’s industrial growth spurt would be sustainable given the current political climate inside the United States. Several peppered 3M officials with questions about whether President Trump’s potential policy changes on trade might impact 3M.
Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and wants to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Thulin and Gangestad said 3M caters to customers in different regions of the world by using factories often based in those regions, which helps the company become more competitive and hopefully recover some of the weaknesses caused by the high U.S. dollar.
3M spent more than $1.4 billion in buildings, equipment and other capital expenditures last year with more than half landing in the United States. That is not expected to change, they said.
CFRA Research equity analyst Jim Corridore wasn’t put off by unknown trade policy changes.
He noted he liked 3M’s fourth-quarter results, raised his earnings forecast on 3M and maintained his hold rating on the stock. Dee DePass • 612-673-7725