If Wall Street had a Goldilocks story, Abbott Labs
But that stability is based on one of Abbott's continuing realities: No single product really moves the company's needle by itself. That keeps the lows from going too low, but it also tends to tamp down the highs.
Still, investors had to be happy with Tuesday's release of fourth-quarter and full-year 2004 earnings. The top line grew by almost 14%, while fully diluted earnings per share, including a wide range of one-time items, grew by 10.7%.
Abbott's secret lies in its intelligent diversification of products. While sales for acid-reflux fighter Prevacid and the antibiotic Biaxin were disappointing, strong sales of arthritis drugs Humira and Mobic served as a counterbalance.
Investors have plenty to look forward to with Abbott. The medical-products business is expected to continue growing at double-digit rates, and the company has strategic footholds in the areas of diabetes treatment, spinal care, and vascular care -- market segments that should all continue to post solid growth. Abbott will always face tough competition in pharmaceuticals, even though its near-term pipeline looks strong.
Abbott also has a remarkably consistent record of sharing its growth with shareholders. This quarter will mark the 324th consecutive dividend payment, and those dividends have risen steadily for more than 70 years. As management itself said on the call, in classic understatement, Abbott is a company with a "nice history of dividend payout".
Consistency and quality come at a price, though. If management hits its target of $1.8 billion in free cash flow next year, that suggests a forward enterprise-value-to-free-cash-flow ratio of over 42, and the current price-to-earnings ratio of 23 is slightly above both the average for industry and the overall market.
It's reasonable to expect ongoing growth from Abbott in the low to mid-teens. But since Abbott's product diversification can mute the wild highs and lows, investors craving 20% or higher growth should look elsewhere. If you're still interested in jumping in, wait for a cool-down: At least once a year, this stock usually gives investors a chance to buy shares at less than 20 times year-ago earnings. When another of these inevitable dips arrives, Fools seeking a time-tested cash machine can rejoice and buy shares in a company that for more than 70 years has managed to stay at a nice, steady temperature.
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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson holds a CFA and owns none of the stocks mentioned, although he has had an indirect consulting relationship with Abbott.