Soft demand for a key industrial pigment and solar energy products, coupled with increased spending on growth initiatives, led to a sharp drop in the DuPont Co.'s fourth-quarter income.
But the results reported Tuesday still beat the consensus estimate of Wall Street analysts of 7 cents per share on revenue of $7.2 billion, according to FactSet. And the company forecast higher operating earnings for 2013.
DuPont's shares rose 83 cents, or 1.8 percent, to close at $47.82 Tuesday. They are still down 11 percent from their high for the past year of $53.98 set last May.
DuPont chairwoman and CEO Ellen Kullman said the company is stronger than it was a year ago, having recorded nearly 2,300 new product introductions in 2012, an increase of 30 percent.
"However, weakness in markets served by performance chemicals and electronics and communications provided significant challenges in 2012," she said. "We've adjusted our plans to meet the changing market environment and grow our businesses in a slow-growth world economy."
The Wilmington, Del.-based chemical and biosciences company reported Tuesday that its net income fell to $111 million, or 12 cents per share, for the last three months of 2012. That is down 70 percent from $373 million, or 40 cents per share, for the fourth quarter of 2011.
Revenue for the quarter was flat at $7.3 billion, with currency effects and portfolio changes offsetting a 3 percent increase in global volumes. Sales in Latin America grew 10 percent, with an 8 percent volume gain and a 7 percent increase in local prices. A 6 percent increase in volume in the Asia-Pacific region, was offset by negative currency and pricing effects.
For the full year, DuPont earned almost $2.8 billion, or $2.95 per share, on revenue of $34.8 billion. That's down from last year's net income of almost $3.5 billion, or $3.68 per share, on revenue of $33.7 billion. Sales volumes fell 2 percent.
DuPont said it expects operating earnings excluding significant items will range from $3.85 to $4.05 per share in 2013, up from $3.77 per share last year.
One-time items affecting fourth-quarter results included $135 million to resolve legal claims stemming from the use of DuPont's Imprelis weedkiller, bringing the total amount spent on Imprelis claims to $750 million.
DuPont chief financial officer Nick Fanandakis said the company was working to validate and resolve claims regarding damage to trees, particularly evergreens such as Norway spruce and white pine, linked to the weed killer.
"We want to bring closure to this as soon as possible," he said.
DuPont also recorded asset impairment and restructuring charges totaling $99 million, and a pretax gain of $117 million associated with the sale of a business within its agricultural unit.
The company's fourth-quarter performance was led by the agricultural unit, which saw sales increase 18 percent to $1.5 billion on 11 percent higher volumes and 7 percent higher prices. Full-year sales for the agricultural unit were up 14 percent to $10.4 billion on 8 percent higher volume and 6 percent higher prices. DuPont said sales of its Pioneer seeds benefited from higher global volume and pricing gains in corn and soybeans, while strong demand for insecticides and herbicides resulted in increased sales of crop protection products.
Agriculture remains a key focus in DuPont's growth initiatives. Fanandakis noted that of the 12-cent per share impact from fixed costs in the quarter, more than half was related to growth projects, specifically agricultural research and development and selling expenses.
Matt Arnold, an analyst with Edward Jones, said agricultural product characteristics such as drought-resistance and pest resistance require intensive research and development, even if it takes years to see the payback.
"We think it's probably one of the best places to be active in terms of R & D," he said.
Meanwhile, cyclical pressure in the market for titanium dioxide, a whitening pigment with a broad range of industrial applications, contributed to a 15 percent drop in sales for DuPont's performance chemicals unit, which saw pretax operating income plunge 54 percent.
While acknowledging the cyclical nature of the TiO2 market, DuPont officials said they expect demand will rebound later this year with improvements in the U.S. housing market and China's economy.
"This is a very strong business," Kullman noted. "It's a very strong cash generator."
DuPont said weak demand for photovoltaic products used in solar panels partly offset increased demand for materials used in smart phones and tablet computers in the most recent quarter. For the year, the company's electronics and communications segment saw pretax operating income, excluding one-time items, drop 52 percent, to $172 million.
DuPont officials said the photovoltaics market has shown signs of stabilizing but remains volatile because of overcapacity.