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Honeywell Does Little to Alleviate Unease

Brooke Sutherland

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Even investor darling Honeywell International Inc. isn’t immune to the slowdown taking place in manufacturing.

The maker of jet engines and air-conditioner controls reported second-quarter earnings on Thursday that beat analysts’ estimates, but sales in the period were weaker than expected, both including and excluding the impact of M&A and currency swings. The 5% organic revenue growth Honeywell notched in the second quarter was a step down from both the year-earlier period and the aggressive 8% pace set in the first quarter. While the company raised its 2019 organic sales growth target to a range of 4% from 6%, its third-quarter forecast for 2% to 4% expansion was weaker than RBC analyst Deane Dray had been expecting. An increased full-year earnings outlook was also less robust than analysts had been anticipating.

Don’t get me wrong: this was still a very strong earnings performance from Honeywell. The company’s aerospace division remains a standout, with 11% organic growth in the period. Notably, Honeywell had double-digit growth in new equipment for business jets. That’s an interesting contrast to the weak aviation revenue and $100 million slide in backlog at Textron Inc. in the second quarter, which the company blamed on business-jet customers becoming jittery about macroeconomic conditions. And Honeywell does have a habit of under-promising on guidance so that it can over-deliver down the road.

But this feels different than merely keeping the bar low and beatable. There's good reason to be cautious in this environment. Honeywell cited uncertainty in markets with shorter sales cycles, inventory pile-ups in some sectors and macro-economic concerns including tariffs and Brexit, and it appears to already be digging around in its toolkit for ways to weather a downturn. Concerns that cooling demand is becoming more marked than investors had appreciated took on a new gravity this week after East Coast railroad CSX Corp. reversed its call for sales growth this year and predicted as much as a 2% decline instead. Honeywell’s showing wasn’t nearly strong enough to buck the general feeling of unease.

In other earnings news, Dover Corp. also reported second-quarter results on Thursday and followed a pattern similar to Honeywell: earnings per share beat analysts’ estimates and the company raised its full-year guidance, but overall sales in the period were a disappointment and Dover left its revenue outlook unchanged.  This pattern of earnings beat/sales miss adds some early credence to industrial companies’ contention that years of cost-cuts and spin-offs have put them in a better position to weather an economic downturn. Dover last year spun off its Apergy Corp. energy business, while Honeywell carved its turbochargers and consumer-facing home technologies businesses into separate companies. In its earnings presentation, Honeywell said its relatively unburdened balance sheet and improved access to overseas cash after the U.S. tax overhaul give it other levers it can pull should a slowdown materialize. In other words, it’s waving the white flag of share buybacks.

I’m not entirely convinced that all these breakups have made industrial companies recession-proof. Yes, they’ve become less cyclical, but that has risks as well. Either way, without sales, you can’t have profit. Gordon Haskett analyst John Inch has warned margin deterioration could be an underappreciated risk in the event of a mild industrial downturn. The severity of the 2008 financial crisis meant that few companies cut their prices because there was such low demand it wouldn’t have made much of a difference, he writes. But in a more moderate slowdown, industrial companies are more apt to use price cuts to drive sales, undermining their margins in the process.  

Honeywell is still likely one of the safest places for investors to ride out a slowdown. But before the gloomy CSX report dragged down the whole industrial sector, Honeywell was enjoying its best start to the year since 2007. The run-up in its shares leaves the company priced for perfection – and investors priced for disappointment should that perfection prove out of reach.

To contact the author of this story: Brooke Sutherland at bsutherland7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Beth Williams at bewilliams@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.

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