With its recent fourth-quarter results, dividend investor favorite Emerson Electric (NYSE:EMR) showed that it's been performing well in the face of mixed end markets. You may have already read the details of the earnings report, but now it's time to look at what management wants you to know about the company's future direction.
Global growth and dividends
There are two key things to understand about the company. First, it's largely a play on global macroeconomic conditions, with an added growth kicker from emerging-market spending on infrastructure projects. Second, it's a Dividend Aristocrat -- a company that has increased its dividend for 25 years or more. Moreover, the underlying evidence suggests that it has the potential, and management the will, to continue rewarding income-seeking investors well into the future. Let's look at five key takeaways from the earnings call in the context of these two points.
In a nutshell, Emerson Electric saw its Europe, USA, and China markets perform in line with expectations in 2014, but Latin America, the Middle East, and other Asian markets, particularly India, came in weaker than expected. Fortunately, growth in North America and China was enough to offset weakness elsewhere, so its underlying sales growth came in at 3% for 2014 -- albeit at the bottom of its planned 3%-5% range.
However, looking into 2015, management is seeing a strengthening U.S. market, but Europe appears to be weakening. Says CEO David Farr:
The NAFTA region looks very solid right now. However, this year, versus last year, we are going into a situation where Europe is weakening. Europe is clearly heading down.
Moreover, Farr expressed "a little bit" of concern for Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and outright concern for Latin America. While, Farr didn't get into detail about the reasons behind the variation in geographic performance, his global outlook mirrors that of the IMF.
Execution is good, even if some end markets are tougher
According to Farr, Europe and certain emerging markets are trending weaker for the company. Furthermore, he outlined a feeling of "more uncertainty" about the global economy. However, he also believes that "net-net" it's "a slightly more positive global economic environment for us to operate in."
Indeed, Farr expects Emerson Electric's underlying sales growth in 2015 to improve to 4%-5%, up from 3% in 2014, even as Director of Investor Relations Patrick Fitzgerald outlined that the company plans "cautiously for global gross fixed investment of 3% to 4% growth next year." In other words, Farr expects the company's growth to exceed that of its end markets, as Emerson Electric is coping well with mixed end markets.
Exposure to oil
It should be taken as a given that the company has exposure to macroeconomic risk, but there were two additional risks discussed on the earnings call. First, the company is exposed to the oil and gas sector; in answering an analyst question on customer behaviour given a fall in oil prices, Farr said:
[If] the price of oil continues to slip down into the $60s, into the $50s ... that clearly that would cause [customers] to really start pulling back on their spending, which will obviously impact us in a significant way. ... [W]e will start seeing this in ... [the] early 2015 calendar quarter if the price of oil stays down.
Power transmission divestiture
Farr also gave an update on the intended timeline for the sale of its industrial automation segment. "Hopefully we will get it done sometime in the second fiscal quarter of 2015," he said. According to reports, the sale could bring in $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion, with Regal Beloit Corporation believed to be among the front-runners.
Returns to shareholders
The last takeaway relates to the reasons many investors hold the stock: the dividend- and shareholder-friendly approach of the board. Having generated $2.9 billion in free cash flow during 2014, the company returned $1.2 billion in dividends and $1.1 billion in stock buybacks. Moreover, Farr confirmed the company's policy of paying a targeted percentage of free cash flow in dividends: "We had a very strong cash flow year, and as our targets are set up for dividends, we look at 40% to 50% of our dividend payment coming out of free cash flow."
Indeed, the dividend was increased to $1.88 for the full year, versus $1.72 last year.
The bottom line
The company is seeing some mixed results in end markets, and a sustained fall in oil prices is also a concern. However, growth in North America and China looks set to offset any concerns in other regions, and the company's current trading conditions indicate that it can grow stronger than its end markets. The restructuring is ongoing, with the industrial automation segment hopefully being sold within the next two quarters.
In essence, the stock's appeal to investors remains the same. It's a well-run company whose management is committed to returning cash to shareholders. So if you want a relatively safe play on global growth, Emerson Electric and its 2.9% dividend yield is an attractive option. Unless global growth starts to slow noticeably, Emerson Electric still looks like a go-to stock for income seekers.