Watch this pattern. In July, 3M (NYSE:MMM) posted second-quarter net income that was 25% higher than the year-ago quarter. The stock fell. In October, earnings increased 17%. You guessed it. Down again. Well, look out below. Net income is up 16.3% in the latest quarter and up 21.4% for 2004. And, drum roll please, the stock is down over 2% both today and over the last 52 weeks.

In 3M's case, the market seems to be fixated on the "buts." If you look back at some recent news stories, you'll see a lot of statements like "3M delivers earnings growth but misses estimates by a penny," and "3M's earnings are strong, but analyst worries about future." I think investors would do well to worry more about 3M's big-picture future and less -- a lot less -- about the minor qualifications that don't seem to have erased 3M's ability to deliver continuously strong results.

And strong growth is not just a thing of the past. From a recent press release: "This strong finish positions us well for continued growth and operational success in 2005." Yikes. After earning $3.75 per share in 2004 (the stock trades for a hardly heady 22 times earnings), 3M sees a very encouraging $4.15 to $4.25 for 2005.

Maybe 3M should borrow the Campbell Soup (NYSE:CPB) jingle, "Mmm, mmm, good!", because that is just what 3M's profit growth has been -- and Campbell can't lay claim to that.

It's not as if other blue chips are such mind-blowing investments that 3M's good results look measly by comparison. Consider consumer products giant Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG). Its net income was up 14% for the first three quarters of 2004 and the stock is trading at 23 times earnings. Procter & Gamble also has $14.7 billion in net debt (debt minus cash) on its balance sheet, while 3M's net debt is $60 million. To be fair, Procter & Gamble has more than twice the revenue of 3M, but it's interesting to note that lower earnings growth and higher debt is rewarded with a higher price-to-earnings multiple.

Heck, megagiant General Electric (NYSE:GE) has a P/E of 24 and its net income was up a measly 2% for the first three quarters of 2004 -- and GE's stock is up 7% over the last 52 weeks.

And it's not just earnings, which can be influenced by fancy accounting, that are increasing for 3M. The company's free cash flow -- that's operating cash flow minus capital expenditures -- increased to $3.3 billion in 2004 from $3.1 billion last year. That's "Mmm, mmm, great!", but Wall Street is yawning. Don't be lulled into inaction. Such good results won't go on being punished forever, at least in my opinion. There is value building here and, compared with its peers, 3M is looking like a bargain.

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Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does not own stock in any of the companies mentioned.

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