How Corning Inc. Achieved Its Latest Earnings Beat

Corning might not manage its business around the fickle near-term demands of Wall Street, but that didn't stop it from exceeding analysts' bottom-line expectations for the third quarter in row today.

In a welcome follow-up to its last two quarters of outperformance,Corning this morning announced core sales in the first quarter rose 4% year over year to $2.43 billion. That translated to a 14% increase in core earnings to $484 million, and -- thanks in part to Corning's repurchase of 21 million shares of common stock for $500 million in Q1 -- a 21% increase in core earnings per diluted share to $0.35.

Analysts on average would have settled for lower core earnings of $0.34 per share, but were expecting slightly higher sales of $2.48 billion. By 10:40 a.m., Corning stock was down about 1.9%.

Digging deeperLeading the charge this time was Corning's Optical Communications segment, quarterly revenue from which exceeded management's expectations after rising 18% year over year to $697 million. This resulted in an 87% jump in Optical core earnings to $72 million. For that, investors can thank growth in both carrier and enterprise networks sales, helped by particularly strong fiber-to-the-home demand in North America. Also contributing to sales growth here was the completion of Corning's acquisition of TR Manufacturing in January.

Even so, Display Technologies remained Corning's single largest segment with sales of $972 million, up slightly from $966 million in the year-ago period. As expected, LCD glass price declines continued to moderate on a sequential basis, and volume grew at a "high-teen percentage" rate from last year's first quarter. And Corning continued to focus on cost reductions in Display Tech, driving a year-over-year improvement in gross margin and a 4% increase in segment core earnings to $294 million.

Meanwhile, Environmental Technologies saw sales climb slightly over last year to $282 million, helped mostly by strong demand for heavy-duty diesel emissions products. Environmental core earnings grew 12% year over year to $48 million.

Specialty Materials sales also rose a modest 4% to $272 million, hindered by a decline in advanced optics sales, but helped by an expected 20% increase in Gorilla Glass volume on accelerating demand for itsrecently launched Gorilla Glass 4. Specialty Materials core earnings grew 44% to $46 million.

Finally, Corning's smallest segment was also its sole underperformer. Life Sciences revenue fell 6% year over year to $197 million on lower-than-expected polysilicon sales, leading to a 14% decline in the segment's core equity earnings and a 10% decline in net income to $19 million.

Peering into the looking glass"Our excellent first-quarter results have given us momentum for continued growth in the second quarter," said Corning CFO Jim Flaws.

For the current quarter, Corning expects LCD glass volume to increase by a "low single-digit percentage" from Q1, with continued moderation in LCD glass price declines. Optical segment sales should also continue climbing by a mid-teen percentage rate.

At the same time, Environmental Technologies sales will likely decrease by a mid-single digit percentage rate in Q2, hurt by the weaker euro as demand for emissions control products remains roughly consistent with last year. Specialty Materials sales should also fall in the mid-single-digit percentage range, as advanced optics product sales more than offset strength in Gorilla Glass. And Life Science sales will be "down slightly" year over year, albeit thanks again to the negative effects of foreign currency exchange.

Even so, Flaws insisted, "We anticipate 2015 will be another year of strong core earnings-per-share growth for Corning."

Keeping in mind Corning only just closed on its acquisition of Samsung Electronics' Fiber Optics business last month, that growth should be led by the continued strength of Corning's Optical Communications segment. Further, Flaws noted Gorilla Glass volumes should continue to climb given strong consumer demand for new smartphone models on which Gorilla Glass 4 serves as the protective cover of choice. Finally, Corning anticipates growth for all of 2015 in both its Environmental Tech and Life Sciences segments, but concedes the potential for extended weakness in the euro could stem this growth.

Overall, however -- and regardless of the market's initial reaction -- I think we're talking about yet another solid quarter of execution from this solidly profitable business. Investors should also keep in mind Corning has around $1 billion remaining under its current share repurchase authorization, ended the quarter with $5.1 billion in cash and investments, and teased last quarter of the impending commercialization of a new, even more durable sapphire-esque device cover glass later this year.All things considered, and with so much to which investors can still look forward, I'm as impressed as ever with Corning stock today.

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