Baxter forecasts upbeat 2018; expects more buybacks, deals

(Reuters) - Baxter International Inc BAX.N on Thursday forecast 2018 earnings largely ahead of analysts' estimates and said it would continue to be active on the acquisition front and repurchase more shares through the year.

The hospital products maker, whose fourth-quarter profit beat analysts’ expectations, said it would repurchase about $500 million worth of shares in the ongoing quarter.

Baxter’s shares, which gained 11 percent this year, slipped 2.7 percent to $70.10 in morning trading.

Analysts said they aren’t as surprised about the stock movement, given Baxter’s conservative full-year guidance.

"Any stock which had a guidance coming in-line or below has (seen) a negative reaction," Evercore ISI analyst Vijay Kumar told Reuters, adding that the same had happened to Intuitive Surgical Inc ISRG.O and Illumina Inc ILMN.O in January.

Analysts believe Baxter’s strong cash flow generation boosts its ability to actively seek accretive mergers and acquisitions.

“I never considered large acquisitions are completely off the table. They’re just difficult to come by, and (it’s) much more difficult ... to get decent returns on those,” Chief Financial Officer James Saccaro said on a conference call.

Baxter has stepped up share buybacks in the recent quarters, Kumar noted. It had $1.2 billion in cash at the end of 2017.

“They have so much cash, everybody is curious on what are they going to buy next?” Joanne Wuensch of BMO Capital Markets said.

Baxter, which sells products including intravenous devices, and inhalation and surgical equipment, has been coping with the effects of the storm that disrupted operations at its Puerto Rico facilities last year.

The company took a $70 million hit on sales due to Hurricane Maria in its reported quarter and expects to have a $25 million impact on its current-quarter revenue.

Production at its Puerto Rico facilities, however, are ramping up and would normalize in a few weeks, Baxter said.

Net sales jumped 5 percent to $2.77 billion in the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, and were in line with analysts’ estimates, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Baxter posted a net loss of $71 million, or 13 cents per share, due to a $354 million charge it booked following changes in the U.S. tax laws.

Excluding items, Baxter earned 64 cents per share, beating estimates by 5 cents.

The company forecast full-year adjusted earnings per share of $2.72-$2.80. Analysts on average were expecting $2.72.

Reporting by Divya Grover in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Martina D’Couto