Intercontinental Exchange (ICE 0.71%) delivered its fifth straight quarter of double-digit earnings growth before the market opened on Thursday. The exchange operator rode strong revenue growth, partially due to the acquisition of Interactive Data, to overcome an increase in operating expenses. That solid performance, as well as what the company sees in the year ahead, enabled it to continue to return cash to its shareholders, including boosting its dividend.

A look at the numbers
ICE reported fourth-quarter revenue of $875 million, which was up 9% year over year and 7.2% ahead of last quarter. Driving this growth was data service revenue, which is up 35% year over year and 23% ahead of last quarter thanks to the acquisition of Interactive Data. That helped the company overcome weaker revenue from transactions and clearing fees, which was down 3.6% from the year-ago period.

The strong data service revenue growth enabled the company to deliver record earnings growth for the quarter, with earnings surging 26% year over year to $3.29 per share. This was despite the fact that operating expenses of $457 million were well above the company's guidance range of $330 million to $335 million. However, that guidance didn't include two acquisitions that were closed in the quarter. Those acquisitions, especially Interactive Data, were a driving force behind earnings growth.

With its strong fourth-quarter performance, ICE ended the year on a real solid note. One key aspect of that solid performance was cash flow, with the company generating $1.3 billion in cash flow from operations in 2015. Because its business is not very capital-intensive, the company was able to return $1 billion of that cash to investors last year, including $331 million in dividends and $660 million in share buybacks. In 2016, that dividend outlay is heading higher, with the company announcing today that it's boosting the payout by 14% to $0.85 per share.

A look ahead
A big reason why ICE is increasing its dividend is because it sees its strong results continuing in 2016. CEO Jeffrey Sprecher said that the "acquisition of Interactive Data, together with many other strategic initiatives, positions us well to deliver strong earnings growth again in 2016." While the company doesn't provide earnings guidance, it does provide some key metrics for investors to monitor in 2016.

Topping that list is consolidated operating expenses, which for the full year are expected to be around $2 billion. While that's well above the $1.6 billion in operating expenses from 2015, that's because it includes a full year of expenses from Interactive Data and its other acquisition, Trayport. Meanwhile, for the first quarter, the company expects its operating expenses to be in the range of $490 million to $500 million.

The key for the company will be to keep its expenses at bay by capturing expected merger synergies. For 2016, the company is expecting to capture $50 million in merger synergies from the NYSE acquisition and another $25 million from Interactive Data. If it can capture additional synergies, such as pulling forward the upwards of $150 million in merger synergies from Interactive Data that it expects over the next three years, then it could outperform its own expectations and deliver even stronger earnings growth.

Investor takeaway
ICE delivered a very good quarter thanks in part to its acquisition of Interactive Data. It expects that transaction will be a key driver of earnings growth in 2016 and beyond as the company integrates it into the fold. Its ability to do that, especially if it can pull forward future synergies, will be the key to its ability to continue its streak of double-digit earnings growth.