(Reuters) - Honeywell International Inc (HON.N) posted fourth-quarter earnings just above Wall Street estimates, reflecting the diversified U.S. manufacturer's campaign to boost profit margins in the face of sluggish sales growth.
The maker of cockpit electronics and systems to manage the climate and security of large buildings confirmed its 2013 profit forecast on Friday and said it expected earnings to rise 6 percent to 11 percent in the first quarter.
"It is just too early to tell what direction the economy is going," said Chief Executive Officer David Cote, who has been one of the loudest voices in corporate America calling on policy leaders in Washington to address the nation's rising debt load.
"Big democracies around the world are still in gridlock over debt, and the U.S. is kicking the debt can down the road and finding that kick doesn't quite go as far as it used to."
Honeywell said earnings came to $251 million, or 32 cents per share, in the fourth quarter. For the year-earlier period, the company booked a loss of $310 million, or 40 cents per share.
Factoring out accounting items related to the company's pension plan, the profit was $1.10 per share, topping the analysts' average forecast of $1.09, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Honeywell shares were up 0.5 percent at $68.57 in early trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
Overall profit margins rose to 15.6 percent of sales from 15.1 percent a year earlier as Cote has been pushing to boost productivity across the company's four divisions, including consolidating businesses into fewer locations.
Revenue rose 1 percent to $9.58 billion from $9.47 billion a year earlier.
The company's performance materials unit, whose products include chemicals and equipment used in oil and gas production, notched the strongest sales growth in the quarter, up 8 percent. At the transportation systems unit, which makes products that include automobile turbochargers, sales fell 11 percent, reflecting weak European demand.
The Morris Township, New Jersey-based company affirmed its 2013 profit forecast of $4.75 to $4.95 per share.
At Thursday's close, Honeywell shares had risen about 18.5 percent over the past year, outpacing the 13.6 percent rise of the broad Standard & Poor's 500 index .SPX.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)