Sage Investment Club products distributor Fastenal FAST –2.40% had a positive message for investors to kick off earnings season: Things aren’t perfect, but they are better than feared.Thursday morning, Fastenal (ticker: FAST) reported earnings per share of 43 cents from $1.7 billion in sales. Wall Street was looking for 42 cents a share from $1.68 billion in sales. In the fourth quarter of 2021, Fastenal reported 40 cents a share from $1.53 billion in sales.It’s a small top and bottom line “beat.” Fastenal stock was little changed in premarket trading shortly after results were announced, while S&P 500SPX –0.86% and Dow Jones Industrial AverageDJIA –0.69% futures are both off 0.9% and 0.8%, respectively.Despite the muted reaction, there are some positives investors can take from Fastenal’s report.Average prices rose almost 4% compared with the fourth quarter of 2021. That was a result of price increases taken in the first three quarters of the year. The company didn’t take any broad pricing action in the fourth quarter. Moderating inflation is a positive for the company and the economy.Moderating demand isn’t a positive. Demand did slow at Fastenal in the fourth quarter, but daily sales from Fastenal locations—the metric Fastenal uses to compare demand from period to period—rose 10.7% year over year.Another way Fastenal tracks demand is whether sales to its largest 100 accounts are growing. Sales grew at 79 of the 100 top accounts in the fourth quarter. That figure was 83 out of 100 for the third quarter of 2022.Distributors such as Fastenal are a good real-time read on the manufacturing economy. They sell thousands of low-price products to tens of thousands of customers across the country. Things aren’t as good as they were, but they certainly aren’t terrible headed into 2023.Fastenal hosts an earnings conference call at 10 a.m. eastern time. Investors will be looking for more insight on the health of the U.S. industrial economy when management speaks.Options markets had implied that the stock would move about 4%, up or down, following earnings. That’s similar to the volatility experienced after earnings over the past four quarterly reports. Shares have fallen three times and risen once over that span.Coming into Thursday trading, Fastenal stock is flat over the past three months. Shares are down about 19% over the past 12 months. The S&P 500 is up about 6% over the past three months and down about 14% over the past year.

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