Leucadia Shows Investors the Beef as Revenue, Profit Soar

By Dan Caplinger Markets Fool.com

In past years, Leucadia National (NYSE: LUK) had to face some tough industry conditions. The conglomerate's Jefferies Group financial unit fought to overcome volatile markets, while the National Beef division worked hard to sustain its leadership in challenging times. However, those industries have both improved lately, and coming into Monday's fourth-quarter financial report, Leucadia investors were hoping that the company would be able to build some positive momentum with its results. Leucadia's performance was better than most had expected, and the conglomerate thinks that 2017 could be even stronger.

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Let's take a closer look at Leucadia National to see how it did and what's ahead for the company going forward.

Leucadia's majority-owned National Beef unit. Image source: National Beef.

Leucadia cooks up a good quarter

Leucadia's fourth-quarter results looked were just what many investors wanted to see. Revenue was up 10% to $2.75 billion, dramatically outperforming the consensus forecast for just 4% growth in its top line. Net income more than doubled from the year-ago quarter to $137.2 million, and that worked out to earnings of $0.37 per share. That compared favorably to the $0.23 per share that most of those following the stock had expected.

Looking more closely at the report, because of the fact that this marked the end of the year, Leucadia didn't provide the typical quarterly breakouts on some of its businesses. However, full-year results showed some interesting trends. Jefferies posted revenue of $2.42 billion for 2016, which was down 2% from 2015's sales, and a rise in compensation and benefits was primarily responsible for the nearly two-thirds decline in segment pre-tax profit. Within the unit, the fixed-income side of the business did very well, and the advisory investment banking segment also posted growth from year-ago levels. However, equities-related business both in traditional and investment banking weighed heavily on Jefferies' bottom line. Leucadia blamed the bear market environment in the first quarter for getting Jefferies started on the wrong foot, but improvement in the remainder of the year cushioned the blow.

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National Beef, however, showed much more of an immediate turnaround. Revenue for the majority-owned beef business fell 5% to $7.03 billion, but it posted a $329 million pre-tax profit, reversing losses in 2014 and 2015. Lower sales prices for its beef and by-products hurt the company, but lower feed costs helped reduce costs of sales to help improve margin figures. Rising volume in the cattle industry produced record profits for National Beef.

CEO Rich Handler and President Brian Friedman were happy with the way that the year ended. "Jefferies showed strong performance in investment banking, solid performance from its core equities business, and continuing significant improvement in fixed income," the two executives said, while "National Beef benefited from strong demand and more than ample supply of cattle, which together resulted in excellent margins."

Can Leucadia keep climbing in 2017?

Leucadia is also excited about its future. As Handler and Friedman said, "Our two largest businesses have regained their stride, and the rest of our businesses are in solid shape and well-positioned as we enter 2017."

Leucadia has also continued to believe that its own shares represent a good value at current prices. The company bought back 1.1 million shares at an average price of $19.30 per share during the fourth quarter, amounting to roughly $21 million in repurchases. That boosted the 2016 total to 5.4 million shares and about $94 million, and Leucadia still has authority to buy back another 16.2 million shares.

Leucadia investors were generally pleased with the news, and the stock climbed about 2% right after trading began on Friday morning before giving up some of its gains later in the day. With its core businesses starting to fire on all cylinders, Leucadia believes that 2017 could finally be the year in which the company shows its full potential to its longtime shareholders.

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Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Leucadia National. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.