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Is DuPont Getting Its Strength Back?

By David Smith - Apr 22, 2013 at 7:11PM

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Despite being buffeted by the economy, DuPont appears to be gaining ground as it moves more decisively into agriculture.

Tuesday will bring with it the quarterly rendering of results from DuPont (DD), the venerable company that is steadily transforming itself from a broadly based chemicals manufacturer into a member in good standing of the world's all-important agriculture set.

For now, the analysts who follow the company anticipate flat results, as this solid company attempts to forge a path through a sputtering world economy that is having an especially pronounced effect on its traditional businesses. Specifically, the forecast is for DuPont to register $1.52 per share for the quarter, up a penny from last year's first quarter. Revenues are expected to slide by about 7% year over year to $10.41 billion, from $11.23 billion.

DuPont is generally following hard on the heels of Monsanto (MON) in the expansion of its agricultural operations. Indeed, while Monsanto's sectors are categorized by terms like corn seed and traits, vegetable seeds, and cotton seed and traits, DuPont continues to feature such sectors as electronics and communications and performance chemicals. Earlier this month, Monsanto demonstrated the wisdom of its agriculture-centric approach by reporting quarterly per-share earnings of $2.73, up nearly 20% from the $2.28 per share of a year ago.

Looking back
For the sake of added perspective, in the prior period -- the fourth quarter of 2012 -- DuPont recorded per-share earnings of $0.11, compared with $0.26 for the same quarter of 2011. The company's sales were about flat year over year at $7.3 billion for the quarter. On a segment top-line basis, agriculture easily led the company's seven units, checking in with 18% growth in revenues for the quarter.

On a relative basis, then, and barring a substantial miss vis-a-vis expectations, the first quarter of this year appears destined to display far more strength than its sequential predecessor. I'll crawl out on a cornstalk and predict that the agriculture and nutrition and health units will again lead the DuPont growth parade. And if the past is prelude, North and South America will again be out front geographically.

Beyond that, I'll be carefully watching management's notions about the company's future. At the completion of the December quarter, per-share guidance for the full year was in the range of $3.85 to $4.05. Assuming the consensus for the quarter is close to the mark, it appears unlikely that that guidance will be reduced.

Other areas
Beyond purely quantitative considerations, it's likely that management will discuss other meaningful items during the quarter:

  • In January, the company celebrated the installation of a 200-kilowatt solar array at Harborview Farms. Harborview comprises 10,000 acres, making it one of the largest farms in the state of Maryland. As David Miller, president of DuPont's electronics and communications unit, said at the time, ""Solar power, together with other sustainable farming practices recommended by DuPont provides great potential to boost crop yields and energy savings for farmers."
  • Immediately after the conclusion of the quarter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new federal-private collaboration with DuPont to safeguard natural resources on private lands. The object of the effort is to provide bio-based feedstocks for cullulosic ethanol production.

Agriculture's ineluctable growth
Given prognostications for substantial increases in the number of mouths seeking food across our planet in coming years, I tend to monitor the agriculture sector especially closely. For instance, as March came to a close, Mosaic, a significant producer of fertilizer and a subsidiary of Cargill, reported solid results for its most recent quarter. Beyond that, in mid-May, Deere & Co., which comes at the world of agriculture from the equipment side, is scheduled to report on May 15, with its per-share results expected to expand to $2.72 for its most recent quarter, vs. $2.61 for the comparable quarter last year.

But as to DuPont specifically, perhaps my Foolish colleague Dan Carroll best summed up the company's circumstance at the end of 2012 as he looked ahead to its 2013 potential. "The economy will likely keep this company from any astronomical returns, but DuPont's positioned well to perform better than 2012's lackluster offerings. While no one can predict the future, you can be confident that DuPont's making the right moves to secure a brighter, stronger tomorrow."

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