Boston Scientific's Long Road to Respectability Begins

Investors in troubled medical device maker Boston Scientific (NYSE: BSX  ) have been waiting for the flickers of hope in a turnaround for some time. With the company's cardiac rhythm management, or CRM, business in retreat, the outlook hasn't been pretty over the recent past; however, things have finally started to look up for this company. Shares are up astronomically over the past three months, topping gains of more than 33%, and today's earnings report -- a much-needed sigh of relief for investors -- is just what the doctor ordered.

Falling sales, but beating expectations
To be fair, Boston Scientific still did see sales dip in the fourth quarter of 2012. Company revenues fell to $1.82 billion from $1.85 billion a year ago. For the full year, sales slid even farther: Revenue dipped 4.9% for the entirety of 2012, down to $7.25 billion. That's not what investors want to see, but the silver lining is that Boston Scientific managed to slow its rate of sales decline in the most recent quarter.

The company did manage to eke out a profit as well, posting earnings per share of $0.04. Like with revenues, that's much better than the full-year data; over the entirety of 2012, Boston Scientific lost a whopping $2.89 per share. When adjusted for one-time items, however, things look a lot better: The company posted adjusted EPS of $0.18 this past quarter, soundly topping Wall Street expectations of $0.11. For the full year, adjusted EPS came in at $0.66, also easily beating projections by more than 50%.

Around the company's businesses, however, familiar laggards weighed down the results. The CRM division and Boston Scientific's interventional cardiology branch -- which makes catheters and guide wires, among other related products -- both saw sales decline over the past quarter. That shouldn't surprise too many health care-conscious investors; after all, rival St. Jude (NYSE: STJ  ) also saw its own CRM business nailed in its quarterly report, with revenues down 6%. Medtronic (NYSE: MDT  ) has similarly taken significant hits at its CRM division, with sales falling 3% last quarter. This simply isn't a good business to be in right now. And with Boston Scientific so heavily oriented toward these two divisions, it needs to figure out a way to minimize sales losses here -- fast.

Coming on strong in 2013
Boston Scientific's rosy 2013 forecasts have really helped push up today's rally, however. The company estimated per-share earnings next year of between $0.64 and $0.70, far exceeding average estimates of around $0.43. Boston Scientific's set a high bar to achieve for next year, but if it can continue to turn around its sales -- and actually manage to drive revenues up, rather than continuing this ongoing slide -- it'll reward its shareholders handsomely.

One thing that could greatly help out that proposition is the company's latest round of job cuts. Boston Scientific announced today that it would slash up to 1,000 positions, significantly reducing the company's head count and lowering pre-tax operating expenses by up to $100 million or more by the end of the year. Nobody wants to see job cuts, but with Boston Scientific in need of every dollar it can find, it's the right move for the company to make.

Boston Scientific also announced it plans to buy back up to $1 billion in shares -- a program I'm personally less fond of given the company's financial woes. Investing in its sales-light but growing businesses, such as neuromodulation and its peripheral intervention stent business, would be a much better use of cash that could help the company firm up its future, rather than placate investors.

Today's just the start
It's a good day for Boston Scientific investors nevertheless, with signs of a turnaround starting to show. Sales may still be falling, but between the company's optimism around 2013 and latest round of job restructuring, Boston Scientific clearly has a plan to keep the momentum rolling in the new year. The company's far from out of the woods -- with its CRM and interventional cardiology businesses still struggling to pull their weight -- and the share buyback program looks like a shortsighted decision in the long-term strategy of recapturing growth.

However, if Boston Scientific can manage to push up its lagging businesses while sustaining its smaller, growing divisions, it'll reward those faithful shareholders who have stuck with the company through thick and thin. Today's just the first day you'll need to watch -- this company's road back from hard times is just beginning.

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