What PPG Industries' Earnings Mean for the Chemical Sector

PPG Industries  (NYSE: PPG  )  reported fourth quarter results that were in-line with analysts' expectations. It also marked the company's 10th consecutive record quarter for adjusted earnings per share. CEO Charles Bunch noted that the quarter capped off an "exceptional year" for the company.

PPG Industries saw 10% earnings growth year over year, with strength in both coatings and in optical and specialty materials. Glass was the only segment with negative growth. Sales volume was carried by the U.S., Europe showed negative growth, and growth in emerging markets, while modest, did show improvement as the year progressed.

PPG generated record cash from operations in 2012, with $1.8 billion flowing through the company. A good portion of that cash now sits in the company's bank account, with cash and equivalents up a billion dollars for the year to $2.4 billion. The strong performance has enabled PPG to keep its dividend growth streak alive -- the company has now grown it for 41 straight years.

The strong cash flow was due in part to strong margin growth from the company's restructuring program. That program will continue into 2013 with another $70 million-$80 million of incremental savings to fall to the bottom line in 2013. A big part of the company's restructuring efforts will close in the next couple of weeks as it completes the spin-off and merger of its commodity chemicals business with a Georgia Gulf (NYSE: AXLL  ) subsidiary.

PPG's strong quarter raises the bar for its competitors. DuPont  (NYSE: DD  ) which reports on Jan. 22, 2013, had been a key competitor to PPG's performance coatings business but it's being sold to a private equity firm. Like PPG, the company expects its restructuring efforts to pay off. It fully expects its fourth quarter to come in at the high end of its previous guidance.

That means Dow Chemical  (NYSE: DOW  ) , which reports on Jan. 31, and Huntsman  (NYSE: HUN  ) which doesn't report until Feb. 11, will need to have strong quarters to keep up. Huntsman investors should know what to expect being the latest of the four to report, which will put pressure on the company to issue a meet if not beat to keep the stock from selling off.

By divesting its commodity chemicals business, PPG Industries will no longer be competing head-to-head in some of the same markets as Dow Chemical or Huntsman. However, the products those companies manufacture will remain important to PPG's performance coatings business. PPG will still remain a company to watch in order to gauge the strength of the chemical industry.

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