Ball Corporation's Earnings Beat Is in the Eye of the Beholder

With business lines that range from aerospace to beverages packaging to home vegetable canning (the "Mason jars" so well known to domestic canners, now manufactured under license to Jarden Corporation), the Ball Corporation (NYSE: BLL  ) epitomizes the concept of an industrial conglomerate of unrelated businesses. And this morning, Ball Corporation gave investors a lesson in why corporations love this business model so much.

Reporting earnings Thursday morning, Ball confirmed that in Q1 2014 it:

  • Grew revenues less than 1%, with rising sales in two of its divisions (metal beverage packaging, Americas and Asia and in Europe, respectively) offsetting weaker sales in two others (metal food and household products packaging and aerospace and technologies)
  • Added 370 basis points to its operating profit margin, driving it up to 10.8%
  • Ended up earning $0.65 per diluted share on the bottom line

Whether that's an earnings "beat" or an earnings "miss," however, is open to interpretation.

It depends on your definition of "earnings"

Ball doesn't make this anymore, but it does license the rights to the name. Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to Yahoo! Finance, analysts expected Ball Corp. to report $0.67 per share in Q1. At first glance, $0.65 would appear to fall short of that mark. But as the company pointed out in its release this morning various one-time items, including "business consolidation costs, debt extinguishment costs and other activities," cut $0.16 off its net during the quarter. Absent these costs, earnings would have been $0.81 per share and beaten analyst estimates handily.

So far, investors appear to be taking Ball's word for it that earnings for the quarter were "strong" and that there's nothing to get disappointed about in today's numbers. And maybe they're right. After all, whether a company "beats" or "misses" a single quarter's Wall Street estimate is pretty irrelevant in the long term. What's more important is whether the company is succeeding, and growing, over time -- and Ball Corp. appears to be doing so.

Consider the metric of free cash flow -- the actual cash profits a company generates from its business, as opposed to the GAAP interpretation of its profits. In Q1, Ball actually burned cash -- $197 million worth of the stuff, in fact. But this was a figure much improved over last year's Q1 tally, which saw cash burn of $413 million at Ball Corp.

What's more, Ball Corp. sees that figure improving even further as 2014 progresses. Management projects free cash flow of $550 million will be generated this year -- enough cash to give the stock a 14.5 price-to-free cash flow ratio at its present market cap. With management promising earnings growth of 10% to 15% this year, that seems an appropriate valuation on the stock in the near term. A tad high, perhaps, in light of the stock's heavy debt load and analyst expectations for slower growth farther out, but not so expensive that I'd say investors are clearly wrong to be bidding Ball shares up this morning.

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