When Corning (NYSE:GLW) announced fourth-quarter 2019 results early Wednesday, the market's initial positive reaction was no surprise considering those results arrived comfortably above both Wall Street's models and management's guidance laid out three months ago. But shares of the glass-centric tech stock have since all but given up that brief post-earnings surge both as investors absorbed news of difficult industry conditions and as broader market indexes pulled back on coronavirus fears.

The silver lining? Corning continues to outpace the growth of the industries on which it relies, leaving it well positioned to profit handsomely when those industries rebound.

In the meantime, let's take a closer look at how Corning ended its tumultuous year, as well as what the company had to say about its future expectations.

Metric

Q4 2019

Q4 2018

Change (Decline)

GAAP net sales

$2.817 billion

$3.035 billion

(7.2%)

GAAP net income

$32 million

$292 million

(89%)

GAAP earnings per diluted share

$0.01

$0.32

(96.9%)

Data source: Corning. GAAP = generally accepted accounting principles. https://s22.q4cdn.com/662497847/files/doc_financials/2019/q4/2020-01-29-Q4-Earnings-with-Financials.pdf

While it's important to examine GAAP results, Corning also provides "core" (non-GAAP) metrics to offer clarity on the performance of its underlying businesses. This effectively means excluding items like foreign currency translation, acquisition costs, and restructuring expenses.

To that end, Corning's core net sales in Q4 fell a more modest 4% year over year, to $2.851 billion. Its core net income declined 25% to $406 million, and fell 22% on a per-share basis to $0.46. By comparison, leading into the report analysts' consensus estimates had called for lower core earnings of $0.44 per share on core sales of $2.7 billion.

Two scientists in white coats testing the flexibility of Corning glass.

Image source: Corning.

By business segment, Corning's display technologies sales fell 12% to $795 million, translating to a 25% decline in segment net income to $180 million. While display glass volumes outpaced the market with mid-single-digit percent growth -- in line with expectations detailed in September -- that growth was more than offset by a moderated low-single-digit percent decline in display glass pricing.

Next, optical communications segment sales dropped 23% to $903 million, leaving full-year 2019 sales down 3% even as the broader optical market endured high-single-digit percent declines. After coupling those lower volumes with reduced production in an effort to lower inventories, optical segment net income fell a steep 63% to $62 million.

Corning's smaller businesses fared better. Quarterly life sciences sales rose 8% year year over to $256 million, well ahead of the lab-equipment niche it serves, driving a 31% increase in segment net income to $38 million. Environmental technologies sales also rose 17% to $374 million, thanks to sustained gas particulate filter demand, sending segment net income up an impressive 52% to $64 million. And specialty materials -- which notably includes Corning's premium Gorilla Glass cover glass products -- jumped 14% to $453 million, translating to an 8% increase in segment net income to $94 million.

"Expect to build momentum throughout 2020..."

Corning chairman and CEO Wendell Weeks elaborated:

In 2019, we grew sales 2% driven by strong performance in three businesses. We advanced key growth initiatives and took actions to address the material impact of changing market and customer dynamics in Display Technologies and Optical Communications. While our 2019 growth did not meet
long-term targets, we once again outperformed our underlying markets and expect to build momentum throughout 2020 that will keep us on track to achieve the goals set forth in our four-year Strategy & Growth Framework.

Of course, Weeks was referring to Corning's new 2020-2023 Strategy & Growth Framework introduced last June, under which the company is targeting annual sales growth of 6% to 8%, and compound annual growth in earnings per share of 12% to 15%. Corning also pledged to return $8 billion to $10 billion to shareholders through 2023 via stock repurchases and dividends, even as it invests $10 billion to $12 billion back into growing the business through a combination of RD&E (research, development, and engineering), capital investments, and mergers & acquisitions.

In the meantime for 2020, according to CFO Tony Tripeny, Corning sees continued growth for the three smaller segments (Specialty Materials, Life Sciences, and Environmental Technologies). And on a consolidated basis, management believes Corning will "return to sales and profit growth and expand margins" by the second half of 2020, driven largely by improved volumes in both the core display technologies and optical communications businesses.

That's fair enough; it's a telling sign of Corning's dominance and leadership that it continues to outgrow the industries it targets, after all. And Corning remains well positioned to benefit when those industries turn for the better. So while it's no surprise to see investors offering a muted positive reaction to this stronger-than-expected end to 2019, I still think the stock is a compelling bet for patient, long-term shareholders.