--Debt refinancing costs weigh on bottom line, but sales broadly higher
--PBM, retail sales each rise, helping CVS report better-than-expected results
--Same-store sales growth exceeds monthly data posted by Walgreen, Rite Aid
(Updates with CEO interview comments, additional background and the latest stock quote, beginning in the first paragraph.)
By John Kell
CVS Caremark Corp.'s (>> CVS Caremark Corporation) fourth-quarter earnings rose 2.6% as debt refinancing costs weighed on the bottom line, somewhat masking a strong performance for the company's pharmacy-benefits-management business and higher retail sales.
The drugstore retailer and PBM has now reported better-than-expected adjusted earnings for four consecutive quarters. Results in the fourth quarter were led by the PBM business, which saw revenue rise 17% to $18.6 billion, aided by new clients added to the network during the 2012 PBM selling season, higher drug costs and growth in the Medicare Part D program.
On the retail side, the top line jumped 5.1% to $16.3 billion as same-store sales grew 4%, growth that exceeds the monthly sales data posted by rivals Walgreen Co. (>> Walgreen Company) and Rite Aid Corp. (>> Rite Aid Corporation) in late 2012. Prescription volume growth was healthy, aided by client wins after Walgreen's contract dispute last year with fellow PBM Express Scripts Holding Co. (>> Express Scripts Holding Co) and stronger demand for flu-related prescriptions.
But CVS said pharmacy same-store sales were stung by higher usage of low-priced generics, which hurts the top line for drug store chains, though those products have a mixed benefit as they command higher margins.
An active flu season has helped drugstore chains somewhat mitigate the top-line dent caused by higher generic penetration, as consumers seek out vaccinations, order prescriptions and buy over-the-counter cough-and-cold medications. CVS Chief Executive Larry Merlo told Dow Jones Newswires that the company saw a "significant uptick" in flu activity by mid-December and strong demand through most of January.
Mr. Merlo said over the past two weeks, CVS has seen the severity of flu cases moderate. Still, the company has administered about 4.8 million flu shots so far this season, above last year's level.
Overall, CVS reported a profit of $1.13 billion, or 90 cents a share, up from $1.1 billion, or 81 cents a share, a year earlier. Excluding debt-related costs and other items, adjusted earnings from continuing operations were $1.14 in the latest quarter. Revenue increased 11% to $31.39 billion.
Analysts polled by Thomson Reuters most recently projected earnings of $1.10 on revenue of $31.13 billion.
Gross margin expanded to 20.1% from 19.6%.
For the year, CVS now sees adjusted earnings from continuing operations of $3.86 to $4, a view that was lifted by two cents to reflect the debt refinancing.
CVS will face some lofty comparisons in 2013, due to strong demand for generics, particularly in the first half of the year. And after Walgreen inked a contract agreement with Express Scripts starting in September, the company has had some success winning back some customers it lost to competitors during the months-long spat, resulting in some lost business for CVS.
Shares were up 1.5% to $52.50 in premarket trading.
--Tess Stynes contributed to this article
Write to John Kell at email@example.com
Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires