Corning Incorporated (NYSE:GLW) might be 164 years old, but it's sure not showing its age.
In a continuation of last quarter's strong showing, the glass maker just achieved core sales of $2.6 billion in the fourth quarter, good for a 30% increase over the year-ago period. That translated to 55% growth in adjusted earnings, hitting $0.45 per share. Analysts, on average, were only modeling earnings of $0.38 per share on sales of $2.5 billion.
Corning also pointed out that this means it exceeded $10 billion in annual sales for the first time in the company's history, and eight straight quarters of year-over-year earnings growth. Corning stock rose 2% in early trading as a result.
Breaking it down
Corning's Display Technologies segment led the way once again, with core sales jumping 69% year over year to $1.1 billion on sustained retail demand for larger LCD televisions. Combined with continued moderation of LCD glass price declines and the company exceeding its goal of $90 million in synergies from Corning's acquisition of Corning Precision Materials, core Display Technologies earnings jumped 26%.
Corning's Optical Communications segment also continued to accelerate, with core sales up a better-than-expected 12% over the same year-ago period to $676 million. For that investors can thank strength in North American Fiber-to-the-Home sales. With the help of manufacturing efficiency improvements, core Optical earnings jumped an even more impressive 64% to $59 million.
Meanwhile, Environmental Technologies' core sales rose a more modest 5% to $238 million on strong demand for Corning's light- and heavy-duty emissions products. Environmental core earnings followed suit, rising 5% year over year to $40 million.
In addition, Specialty Materials' core sales performed better than Corning had hoped, up 12% over the same year-ago period to $319 million. For that, Corning pointed to stronger-than-expected "consumer and manufacturer interest" for Corning's ultra-durable Gorilla Glass 4, which was launched this past November. At the same time, however, core Specialty Materials earnings fell 13% year over year to $34 million, hurt by a write-off of an unnamed customer receivable. Without that write-off, Specialty Materials earnings would have been up 8%. That said, in Corning's subsequent conference call, management noted with Gorilla Glass 4 now available, they're able to take market share while at the same time enjoying premium pricing in accordance with its increased value proposition -- and that's especially true now that the looming threat of new competing materials like sapphire is effectively off the table. This should help prop up Corning's Specialty Materials sales and earnings in the coming quarters.
Finally, Corning's fourth quarter Life Sciences' segment sales increased 2% over last year to $215 million, with core earnings up around 5% to $22 million. Dow Corning core sales also jumped 40% to $1.68 million, leading to core gross equity earnings growth which more than tripled to $111 million.
Corning achieved free cash flow of $3.978 million in 2014, and ended the year with $6.07 billion in cash and short-term investments. And for 2015, CFO Jim Flaws noted Corning expects to increase capital spending to a range of $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion, up from $1.1 billion in 2014. Without providing specifics, he also confirmed that Corning has begun repurchasing shares under its recently approved $1.5 billion share repurchase authorization.
For the current quarter, Corning expects LCD glass volume to be "consistent to down slightly" in line with typical seasonality, with continued moderate glass price declines. For the full year -- and keeping in mind the majority of Display Technology's volume is already under contract -- Corning provided a preliminary forecast for the retail glass market to rise in the high-single digit range, driven by an expected doubling of sales of ultra high-definition TVs, which tend to be larger in size.
Next, Optical Communications should jump at least 10% on a year-over-year basis, while Environmental Technologies and Life Sciences are both expected to be flat over last year. Similar to Optical, Specialty Materials are expected to be up roughly 10% over last year's first quarter, driven by increased demand for Gorilla Glass in products launched in the third and fourth quarters of 2014. Finally, Dow Corning core equity earnings should be up around 17% over last year's first quarter to $69 million.
All things considered, this was a solid all around performance from one of the market's oldest tech companies, and the expectation of continued earnings growth leaves investors feeling good about Corning's prospects going forward. Even with shares now up almost 30% over the past three months, it's understandable why the market is driving Corning stock higher today.
Steve Symington has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Corning. The Motley Fool owns shares of Corning. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.