Earlier this week, Corning (NYSE:GLW) stock rose to a new 52-week-high after the glass maker significantly exceeded expectations with its fourth-quarter earnings. Core sales climbed 30% year over year to $2.6 billion, which led to even more impressive 55% growth in adjusted earnings to $0.45 per share. By contrast, analysts had only modeled earnings of $0.38 per share on sales of $2.5 billion.
After each quarterly announcement, Corning CFO Jim Flaws talks with analysts to offer insight into the company's results and what to expect going forward. Here are five of the most important things he said during this quarter's call:
Corning is firing on (almost) all cylinders
We had a fantastic quarter that was better than we originally expected. Earnings per share were up 55% versus last year, led by the consolidation of [Corning Precision Materials], Optical Communications, Environmental, Dow Corning's equity earnings, and a slightly lower tax rate also contributing to growth. LCD glass volume was better than expected, driven by strong demand for larger LCD televisions. ... Display set a quarterly record for sales volume.
The successful integration of CPM largely drove the 69% increase in core sales for Corning's Display Technologies segment, and synergies from that acquisition (more on that below) helped earnings rise by 26% despite continued LCD glass price declines. Meanwhile, manufacturing efficiency improvements in Optical Communications helped a modest 12% increase in revenue translate to a 64% jump in earnings there, while Environmental sales and earnings each rose 5%. Finally, Dow Corning sales jumped 40%, resulting in a near-tripling in core gross equity earnings.
So which segments still need work?
First, Life Sciences sales and earnings increased just 2% and 5%, respectively. But this wasn't entirely unexpected as Corning management repeatedly noted throughout 2014 that Life Sciences wouldn't grow much given low levels of National Institutes of Health spending.
Next, Specialty Materials earnings fell 13% year over year despite a 12% increase in revenue. To its credit, however, Corning management insisted Specialty exceeded expectations, and noted the decline in earnings was due to a single accounts receivable write-off from an unidentified customer. Without that write-off, Specialty earnings would have risen 8%.
Synergies for Corning Precision Materials are ahead of schedule
I can't emphasize enough the outstanding job the Display organization has done with cost reduction and successfully integrating CPM. ... Volume and synergies and cost reductions help the business to improve gross margin percent for the full year. Actual synergies for the year were greater than our expectation of $100 million.
Early last year, Corning completed its acquisition of the 43% stake in CPM it didn't already own. Previously, that stake was held by Samsung as part of an unconsolidated equity venture between the two companies.
For perspective, only three months ago Flaws stated the integration was going well, and that management felt "very good about getting $90 million or more in pre-tax synergies this year." The quarter before that, management outlined long-term goals of reaching $170 million in synergies by 2016, then ultimately a $210 million run rate by 2017. Needless to say, it bodes well for long-term investors that Corning exceeded the $100 million mark by the end of 2014.
Gorilla Glass 4 has superior pricing power
Drop performance of Gorilla Glass 4 is beneficial to device manufacturers, and we expect to be able to price for that added value. ... For the full year, we expect the volume growth at Gorilla Glass to be in line with IT handheld market, and price declines to be more moderate than in 2014 due to Gorilla Glass 4.
Corning says Gorilla Glass 4 not only endures sharp contact with rough surfaces up to twice as well as competitive glasses, but also significantly outperforms Gorilla Glass 3 in check-depth tests. This enables Gorilla Glass 4 to be 27% thinner while still offering superior damage resistance. It makes sense, then, that Corning can charge a premium for Gorilla Glass 4 for customers striving to build ever-thinner devices without sacrificing durability.
That's great for Corning's Specialty Materials segment, which has suffered in past quarters as prices for Gorilla Glass have steadily declined.
Display Technologies will continue delivering in 2015
We feel very good about the [Display] glass market as we enter 2015. Supply chain inventory levels remain healthy, glass supply is tight relative to demand, and we expect another year of glass volume grow at retail. The finalized contracts with our customers will substantiate all our volume in 2015, which we believe is the reflection of our customers' desire to lock in glass supply to the strong market and relatively tight supply demand situation.
With sales last quarter of $1.1 billion, or 42% of overall revenue, we can't ignore the massive impact Display Technologies has on Corning's results. It's encouraging, then, to know nearly all of the company's volume for 2015 is represented by under-contract customers. Flaws said increases in TV unit sales and average screen size should continue this year; Corning's preliminary 2015 forecast calls for the glass market at retail to rise in the high single-digits, as sales of larger ultra HD sets should at least double to roughly 25 million units.
Capital returns are only just starting
We also delivered on our commitment to return cash to shareholders with our recent December announcement of a 20% increase in the dividend and a new share repurchase program of $1.5 billion. ... During the quarter we spent approximately $183 million to repurchase shares. We completed the October 2013 repurchase program in quarter four, and have now begun repurchasing shares under our new program in January.
Corning generated almost $4 billion in free cash flow in 2014, and ended the year with more than $6.1 billion in cash and short-term investments. Naturally, it can't use all that money on R&D, so it makes sense to reward patient shareholders with dividends and -- assuming the price is right -- share repurchases. Even so, I've seen some investors balk at the fact that Corning's latest repurchase authorization isn't as large as the $2 billion program it completed last year. But I personally prefer the solace of having the option to put that money to work wherever I please with a growing dividend -- which now yields a healthy 2%.
In the end, as Corning steadily grows its top and bottom lines, it seems safe to expect it will continue returning capital to shareholders for the foreseeable future.