The economy's growth has started to accelerate, and some hard-hit industries have bounced back with a vengeance. That's been good news for National Instruments (NASDAQ:NATI), which relies on strength in the industrial sector to drive demand for its testing and measurement services.

Coming into Tuesday's fourth-quarter financial report, National Instruments investors hoped that the company would be able to take full advantage of improving conditions among its customer base to produce impressive growth to finish the 2017 year. NI once again topped expectations, and despite a one-time hit from tax reform, the future looks even brighter for the company. Let's look more closely at National Instruments to find out what it sees ahead.

Three mobile devices running National Instruments software.

Image source: National Instruments.

National Instruments keeps climbing

National Instruments' fourth-quarter results delivered where it counted for the company. Revenue was up 6.5% to $349.8 million, topping the 5% growth rate that most investors were looking to see from NI. A one-time charge related to tax reform sent the company's bottom line to a net loss for the quarter, but after accounting for that negative impact, adjusted net income of $56.4 million was up by nearly half from year-ago levels. That translated to adjusted earnings of $0.42 per share, easily beating the $0.34 per share consensus forecast among those following the stock.

The hit from tax reform was sizable, even though it will get offset by lower tax rates in the future. NI took a charge of almost $70 million because of the inclusion of foreign earnings and the revaluation of deferred tax assets and liabilities. Given the company's effective tax rate of 28% in 2016, it's likely that lower corporate rates of 21% will result in tax savings over the long run.

Fundamentally speaking, National Instruments did a good job of keeping up its momentum from past quarters. Revenue growth came largely from international markets, with the Asia-Pacific region seeing 9% segment sales growth and Europe, the Middle East, India, and Africa enjoying an 8% rise on its top line. Growth in the Americas was more sluggish, but even it managed a 3% gain.

Order flow was also favorable. Larger customers were responsible for more of NI's growth, with orders of more than $20,000 climbing 7% from year-ago figures. That compared to just a 3% rise for smaller orders.

CEO Alex Davern was pleased with how the year went. "I am proud of what we accomplished in 2017," Davern said. "We set goals to drive revenue and make significant progress toward our operating model, and through focus, we met those goals." The CEO also credited his employees for their key contributions to NI's success.

How does 2018 look for National Instruments?

NI remains optimistic about the coming year. In Davern's words, "I believe we have an opportunity to continue to drive both growth and improved profitability in 2018." CFO Karen Rapp also weighed in, noting that the company plans to continue executing on "our disciplined capital allocation strategy," which has included both smart investments internally back into the business as well as returning money to shareholders through dividends.

National Instruments thinks that it can sustain its record pace into fiscal 2018. The company sees sales of $305 million to $335 million for the first quarter, which would put NI in position to post another new record for a first-quarter revenue number. Adjusted earnings of $0.19 to $0.33 per share for the quarter could also come in far higher than most of those following the stock expect.

National Instruments investors seemed fine but uninspired by the news, and the stock inched higher by less than 1% in after-hours trading following the announcement. As long as conditions in NI's target customer industries keep getting better, the company should be able to see ongoing fundamental gains for its core business throughout 2018 and beyond.

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