Kimberly-Clark Corporation (NYSE:KMB) is a highly regarded dividend stock because of its impressive track record of strong shareholder returns, mostly driven by the company's industry-leading brands, including Kleenex, Scott, Huggies, Pull-Ups, Kotex and Depend. Kimberly-Clark boasts No. 1 or No. 2 share positions in more than 80 countries across the world and has paid dividends for 80 years straight, not to mention it's raised its dividend for 42 consecutive years.
As the company headed toward its fourth-quarter earnings report, the stock had gained 42% over the trailing-two-year period, which beat the S&P 500 Index in the same period. So why did Kimberly-Clark's long rally hit a big speed bump when it reported earnings?
Well, a few surprises in the company's results likely upset investors. Let's explore whether investors' recent concerns are reasonable.
First, a quick recap
The biggest problem Kimberly-Clark faced last year was currency, as the rising U.S. dollar cut into international sales. Companies who generate a significant portion of their revenue from abroad, as does Kimberly-Clark, suffer when the dollar strengthens. This makes operating results look worse than they actually are. For example, Kimberly-Clark's total sales fell 1% last quarter, but this was due entirely to unfavorable currency fluctuations.
Further, Kimberly-Clark lost $0.22 per share last quarter, due to a currency-related charge taken in its Venezuelan operations. Excluding charges, adjusted earnings clocked in at $1.35 per share last quarter and $5.51 per share in 2014. Adjusted earnings increased 5% last year, which was in line with management's expectations.
Despite battling currency fluctuations, organic sales, which strip out currency effects, rose 3% company-wide. This includes 7% growth in Kimberly-Clark's overseas company, KC International. Kimberly-Clark also generated $1.8 billion of free cash flow last year, and the company returned $3.3 billion to investors through a combination of share repurchases and dividends. These metrics suggest that the true underlying business is still healthy.
When "slow-and-steady" isn't good enough
Despite holding a healthy underlying business, investors' concerns over Kimberly-Clark's outlook for 2015 could have driven the stock's 6% fall after reporting.
Management expects adjusted earnings to grow 2%-5%, driven by a combination of 3%-5% organic sales growth, modest deflation in the cost of raw materials, and benefits from the company's ongoing cost-cutting plan, known as "FORCE" -- a major strategic company initiative that stands for "Focus On Reducing Costs Everywhere." The company cut $90 million in costs last quarter, mostly in administrative and advertising spending. FORCE cost savings totaled $320 million last year.
But it appears that cost savings as a growth driver aren't impressing investors like they used to.
This makes sense from the perspective that Kimberly-Clark held an above-average valuation over the past year. The stock traded for 21 times EPS heading into its earnings report, which is above the market valuation and represents a five-year high for Kimberly-Clark.
Kimberly-Clark's biggest problem: Wall Street
The biggest problem could simply be that Wall Street expectations for Kimberly-Clark are over-reached. Consumer staples is not a growth industry by nature, yet stocks across the sector trade for lofty valuations. Perhaps analyst estimates for 2014 and 2015 are too high, which explains the market's disappointment.
For Fools, the takeaway is that it's business as usual for Kimberly-Clark, but investors can remain cautious about the company's valuation. Kimberly-Clark's business continues to grow and generate free cash flow, which it uses to reward shareholders with stock buybacks and a hefty 3% dividend. It had a strong 2014 and will likely have another year of revenue and earnings growth in store in 2015.
Bob Ciura has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Kimberly-Clark. 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.