When a company reports its quarterly earnings, management often presents just a sketch of how the company performed. But equally important for investors is the conference call -- where management's commentary colors in the sketch, providing the full picture of the company's recent performance. For Johnson Controls(NYSE: JCI), the merger with Tyco International (NYSE: TYC) makes up a lot of the sketch, but let's take a look at some highlights from the conference call to help discern the full picture for Q1 2016.
Keeping expectations in check
One figure that jumps out from the earnings report is the 260-basis-point margin improvement in the power solutions segment. Though it's impressive, management doesn't want to hoodwink investors. According to Alex Molinaroli, chairman and CEO, the company is not solely responsible for the improvement -- rather, it has benefited from external forces:
"One of the things we wanted to make sure that we pointed out is don't give us all the credit for the 260 basis points of margin improvement, because that's not all operational, because as things move around we may not be able to continue at that level."
Providing automotive, marine, and other lead acid batteries, Johnson Controls is strongly affected by lead prices. For this quarter, the impact was favorable -- the average price of lead was 16% lower than Q1 2015. Removing the effect of lower lead prices (and foreign currency exchange), the power solutions segment still reported margin expansion of 70 bps for the quarter.
In the future, investors can assess margin growth in the power solutions segment by referring to guidance which management reported in December. During an investor presentation, it projected a segment margin of 17% for FY 2016; moreover, it forecasted average annual improvement of 40 bps to 50 bps through 2020, culminating in margin expansion to 18.5% to 19%.
This glass may soon be half empty
Further demonstrating his circumspect outlook, Molinaroli cautioned investors that organic improvement (excluding the joint venture with Hitachi) in the building efficiency segment is at the mercy of three factors: China, the Middle East, and federal jobs. In China, the company claims that it's having trouble securing orders and then executing them.
Regarding the Middle East, Johnson Controls reported revenue growth of 31% quarter over quarter because of the completion of several projects, but it doesn't expect to sustain -- because of low oil prices -- that type of improvement.
Lastly, with federal jobs, the company had expected to secure several projects in early 2016; however, it's now unsure if they'll be secured at all. Should all three factors adversely affect the company, sales growth may be cut in half, falling in the range of 4.5%-5.5% instead of the 9%-11% the company had previously forecast.
During the earnings call, management addressed returning money to shareholders in two ways. First, the company will resume buying back shares. Announcing the program in FY 2014, management identified $3.65 billion as the amount it intended to buy back through 2017. Although it put the program on hold because of the automotive interiors spinoff, management expects to repurchase about $500 million through FY 2016.
Management's focus on the share buyback program isn't coming at the expense of attending to the dividend policy. Last year, the company raised the FY 2016 quarterly dividend to $0.29 -- a 12% increase over the $0.26 it paid out in FY 2015. Furthermore, Molinaroli is hopeful about the future:
"Depending on where we are -- if you look at the cash flows that we look at it's going to ramp up because we will still have some trailing costs as it relates integration, moving into next year even the separation. So I think as our cash flows improve, depending on where we are with integration, I would expect that we're going to make the right decision as it relates to whether we return that to the shareholders or make investments."
Although management is warning investors of less than expected revenue growth in both the building efficiency and power solutions segments, it's holding fast to its other guidance -- diluted EPS between $3.70 and $3.90 for FY 2016. As the automotive business is spun off, there will be increased scrutiny on the remaining two segments. Investors should keep an eye on the power solutions segment margin and whether management is achieving it's forecasted average annual margin expansion. Investors should also look for management's decision to return money to shareholders -- a sign of healthy cash flow and an indication that management is executing the various M&A activity as planned.
Scott Levine has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Johnson Controls,. 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.