After the bell on Tuesday, the Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS) reported its fiscal third quarter results, and unsurprisingly, they were quite strong. Under CEO Bob Iger, Disney has been one of the best performing companies in the country. Now admittedly, shares do trade at an elevated valuation as investors reward the company for its consistent operating performance and long growth runway, which is why they were only up 0.5% after-hours despite fantastic results. It might make sense to wait for a pullback to the low $80s to buy shares, especially if you believe the market is headed for a further correction. Still, investors can definitely hold Disney. With its solid operating performance and strong fundamentals, Disney is a stock investors can comfortably buy and hold.
In the quarter, Disney earned $1.28 on sales of $12.46 billion while analysts were only looking for $1.17 on revenue of $12.17 billion (all financial and operating data available here). Revenue was up a solid 7.6% compared to last year while EPS was up a truly fantastic 24%. Disney has been opportunistically repurchasing shares, which is why EPS growth slightly outpaced net income growth of 22%. Operating income was up a solid 15% to $2.245 billion. While free cash flow of $2.05 billion was down 25% year over year, this decline was mainly related to transitory changes in working capital and higher spending in film and media projects. This was a clean, strong quarter, and each segment delivered solid results.
Media networks continue to be the relative laggard with revenue growth of only 3%. Due to higher spending, operating income was flat at $2.3 billion. Within networks there are two segments, broadcasting and cable. Broadcasting, namely ABC, has been a laggard due to struggling ratings, but the unit is starting to turn, thanks in part to blockbuster ratings from Good Morning America. Revenue jumped 7% while income of $354 million increased 66% while timing also led to depressed expense. ABC is getting better morning ratings while shows like Agents of SHIELD are driving better primetime results. ABC is probably bottoming.
Cable networks, driven by ESPN, are critical to Disney's success with operating income of $1.94 billion, though that was down 7% year over year. Expenses were higher due to the World Cup, but these games drew unprecedented ratings. In fact, this year over year decline was really driven by accounting for deferred revenue and the sale of ESPN UK. On an organic basis adjusting for non-cash accounting items, ESPN continues to grow. ESPN remains the unparalleled leader in sports, and ratings continue to be fantastic. ESPN should continue to be a crown jewel asset for the foreseeable future.
Disney's studio also continues to perform exceptionally well despite very tough comps (Iron Man 3 was released last year). Thanks to strength from Frozen in Japan, Captain America 3, and Maleficent, revenue was up 14% while operating income more than doubled to $411 million. This past weekend, Guardians of the Galaxy set an August record, opening to a stunning $94 million (box office data available here). This opening is a testament to the strength of the Marvel Brand, which is having a tremendous halo effect towards less-known franchises. Strength at the box office keeps Disney's characters fresh, helping drive park attendance (revenue up 8%) and consumer products sales (up 16%). Because it drives business elsewhere, the studio may be Disney's most important business.
While 2014 has been a surprisingly strong year at the box office for Disney, 2015 is all but guaranteed to be a record year. It will be releasing 2 Pixar movies, compared to zero this year. 2015 also boasts The Avengers 2 and Star Wars 7. These films are likely to be the two top films of the year and could each near $1.8-2 billion worldwide. These tentpoles give Disney an incredible film slate that will provide substantial growth. Importantly, they are part of large universes that allow for several films based on different characters. Disney has minimized the risk of film-making by building exceptionally popular films that are guaranteed to draw substantial audiences and also provide substantial revenue from merchandise, toys, and park attractions.
This quarter was another one of exceptional performance from Disney. ABC is getting better while ESPN is absolutely dominant. Thanks to its tent-pole strategy, Disney's film studio continues to deliver strong results, which helps lift other units. With its unprecedented film slate, calendar 2015 will be a record year for the company with earnings poised to reach $5.00. At 17.5x forward earnings, Disney is not a cheap stock, but with record results and a strong film pipeline, a higher multiple is justifiable, and I do expect shares to pass $90 in the next year. Disney is a great buy and hold stock that investors should continue to bet on. While shares may be susceptible to a broader pullback given their valuation, I would be a buyer on dips.
Disclosure: The author is long DIS. The author wrote this article themselves, and it expresses their own opinions. The author is not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). The author has no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.