Honeywell International Inc. (HON): The Stock Soars in Powerful Earnings

In stark contrast to industrial and aerospace rivals General Electric Company (NYSE:GE) and Textron Inc. (NYSE:TXT), both of which disappointed investors pretty badly last week, Honeywell International Inc. (NYSE:HON)didn’t.

To the contrary, with Honeywell stock up 3.8% in response to earnings, it appears investors were actually pretty pleased with the numbers Honeywell put up. But should they be?

On one hand, the numbers themselves certainly argue in the affirmative. Last quarter, Honeywell International Inc. (NYSE:HON) produced a 16% improvement in per-share earnings (to $1.21) on essentially flat sales (up just 0.2% to $9.3 billion). Operating margins increased 120 basis points, and going forward, Honeywell promised to deliver full-year pro forma profits of at least $4.80 — that’s a nickel higher than their earlier prediction — and perhaps as much as $4.95 per share.

Honeywell International Inc. (NYSE:HON)On the other hand, though, General Electric produced nearly as much in profits growth as Honeywell International Inc. (NYSE:HON) did, and on about the same growth in revenues — i.e., zilch growth in revenues. But if that’s the case, then what was it about GE’s numbers that disappointed investors so mightily, and how did Honeywell stock avoid GE’s fate?

The answer is “free cash flow.” Honeywell had it. General Electric (almost) didn’t.

Whereas GE on Friday had to own up to a 90% plunge in cash from operations, Honeywell could crow over a 74% increase. Even after making sizable investments in capital spending, this left Honeywell with 9% better cash profits — free cash flow — than it had generated a year ago. GE, on the other hand, appears likely to have burned cash. (GE didn’t give detailed cash-flow information in its earnings release, and it hasn’t filed its 10-Q with the SEC yet, so we can’t be sure.)

To my Foolish eye, that’s the key differentiator between the quarter Honeywell turned in, and the disaster that was GE. And why did it happen?