3M Co.’s messy quarter does little to inspire faith in the company or the industrial economy at large.

The maker of Post-it notes, Scotch tape and wound dressings announced a pair of charges – $134 million for a restructuring plan and $214 million for litigation related to PFAS chemicals – that pulled its fourth-quarter earnings per share below analysts’ estimates. 3M’s particular issues aside, the company sits on the front lines of any economic swings, and there was scant evidence in its results that the great industrial turnaround heralded by President Donald Trump’s trade truce with China has in fact arrived.

Sales at 3M fell 2.6% in the fourth quarter after backing out the impact of acquisitions and currency swings, leaving the company with its biggest annual decline on that basis since 2009. With U.S. tariffs still in place on some $360 billion of Chinese goods, political uncertainty tied to the American presidential election and few specifics about alleged purchasing commitments from China — not to mention the potential economic impact of the widening coronavirus crisis — a recovery is apt to be more muted.(1) 

3M’s concerns run deeper than just a weak macroeconomic backdrop, though. PFAS — which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are  known as the “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment and accumulate in the body. They have been linked to health problems including cancer and immune system dysfunction, spurring a series of lawsuits against manufacturers including 3M and DuPont de Nemours Inc.’s Chemours Co. spinoff. The charge 3M announced Tuesday reflects updated expectations for customer-related litigation and environmental matters for sites where it historically manufactured the chemical. 3M also disclosed on Tuesday that it had received a grand jury subpoena related to non-compliant discharges from an Alabama facility, and said it had discovered similar issues at an Illinois plant as part of a fourth-quarter review.

The charges are a reminder of how much investors still don’t know about 3M’s financial exposure to lawsuits and potential environmental regulation. Gordon Haskett analyst John Inch has estimated 3M’s ultimate liability for PFAS – including remediation, personal injury settlements and monitoring expenses – could be about $27 billion. The company didn’t do itself any favors by waiting until the call to disclose the grand jury probe. That was General Electric Co.’s attitude in 2018 when it casually dropped a mention of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into some of its accounting practices an earnings call. That isn’t the company you want to keep when it comes to transparency and accountability.

In that light, I treat 3M’s latest restructuring push with a dose of skepticism. The company will dismantle the international operations arm that was tasked with setting priorities for geographic regions and instead give its business groups global control over decisions affecting their strategy and resources. This is meant to be “the next step in its transformation journey” following a shakeup last year, where 3M rethought how its businesses are divided up. The idea was to group its products by customers, rather than market – i.e. sales of automotive products to retail shops would fall under the “consumer” unit rather than be lumped in with automotive revenue from manufacturers or body shops. In theory, this all makes sense and should streamline decision-making processes; 3M says it will help the company save as much as $120 million a year. But it also feels like a bit like reshuffling the deck and a convenient way to throw some corporate-speak at a plan to cut 1,500 jobs that might otherwise have felt less like a “transformation”  and more like a reaction to still stubbornly sluggish sales growth.

For 2020, 3M warned organic sales may be flat at worst. That’s a weaker forecast than some analysts had been expecting, but RBC analyst Deane Dray warned even this downbeat outlook may not be pessimistic enough. It’s possible sales slump yet again, particularly given 3M’s dependence on China’s economy and the impact from the coronavirus outbreak. 3M had been modeling low-to-mid-single digit growth in China in 2020 off of depressed 2019 numbers, CEO Mike Roman said on the earnings call. While the company had already been expecting a sluggish start to the year in China largely due to still-weak automotive markets, the coronavirus is “changing things as we go,” Roman said. Offsetting the possible negative impact on China’s overall economy is the growing demand for 3M’s face masks and other respiratory-protection products.

The coronavirus aside, it’s hard to give 3M the benefit of the doubt after a staggering series of guidance cuts over the course of 2018 and 2019. Even if 3M finally did get its outlook right for a change, its best-case scenario for sales growth is a meager 2% increase. Such sluggish but stabilized revenue growth is likely to describe many manufacturing companies’ performance in 2020, but unlike 3M — which declined in 2019 and fell again on Tuesday’s earnings news — many of them aren’t priced for that kind of environment.

(1) Elsewhere on Tuesday, CommerceDepartmentdata showed orders for non-military capital goodsexcluding aircraft—a proxy for business investment —unexpectedly declined 0.9% in December.

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 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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