Dover Corp.'s results are a good omen for industrials as we move into the thick of earnings season.
The $12.5 billion maker of artificial lifts used in oil extraction and gas-station fuel pumps announced first-quarter numbers on Thursday that blew analysts' EPS estimates out of the water, even after adjusting for a gain on divestitures. On top of that, Dover raised its guidance for the remainder of the year -- a welcome change after an epic string of reductions in 2016. Perhaps most telling was one reason why it foresees better EPS: organic growth is back, baby.
Energy orders were up 27 percent year over year in the period, which Robert W. Baird & Co. analyst Mircea Dobre notes is the first increase since the fourth quarter of 2014. Dover now expects organic growth in its energy business to amount to as much as 23 percent this year, boosting overall core expansion to a projected range of 4 percent to 6 percent. Albeit that's off depressed levels -- Dover's overall organic growth declined 5 percent last year -- but it's moving in the right direction. I commented in January that Dover finally appeared to be getting its messaging right on the oil and gas market and that now seems to be playing out with tangible signs of improvement.
This positive turn of events at a company whose results had been pounded by the energy downturn and the drop-off in global growth should be taken as a good sign that industrial CEOs weren't all talk with their optimistic 2017 outlooks. Investors had been somewhat spooked by the poor results delivered already by parts distributors W.W. Grainger Inc., Fastenal Co. and MSC Industrial Direct Co., whose earnings are closely watched as a harbinger of industrial demand. But the problems there had more to do with margins and pricing than revenue growth, with the underlying sales numbers not being all that bad (apart from Grainger, which has bigger Amazon-shaped problems right now).
The impact of rising material costs on margins will certainly be a watch item when larger multi-industrial companies report in the coming weeks. General Electric Co. and Honeywell International Inc. are up first, with both due to announce their first quarter earnings on Friday. But as long as the impact isn't disastrous, investors may be more tuned in to orders and organic growth after last year's drought. Notably, Dover also increased organic growth guidance for its other major divisions -- engineered systems, fluids and refrigeration and food equipment.
The caveat here is that stocks at a number of multi-industrial companies are flying high and already priced for perfection. With such lofty expectations -- and with helping hands like the tax reform and infrastructure policies espoused by President Donald Trump getting pushed further into the future -- there's a risk that decent quarters turn into disappointing stock movements.
What we should be looking for here is positive momentum, not a turbo-boost. As Stifel Financial Corp. analyst Rob McCarthy noted earlier this week, meaningfully improved organic growth and accelerated capital spending on larger industrial and oil and gas projects probably won't kick in until the back half of this year, or maybe even 2018.
Dover gave investors hard numbers to justify their hopes and dreams, but they need to be rational about it. The tempered reaction to Thursday's upbeat news is a good start.
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