Fourth quarter 2018 net earnings attributable to the corporation, on a US GAAP basis, were $151 million, or 44 cents per diluted share, on sales of $2.8 billion compared to $159 million, or 45 cents per diluted share, on sales of $2.7 billion in the fourth quarter of 2017. Ball’s fourth quarter 2018 comparable net earnings were $191 million, or 55 cents per diluted share versus fourth quarter 2017 comparable net earnings of $213 million or 60 cents per diluted share.
“Our improved 2018 results were driven by growing global demand for our metal packaging products and aerospace capabilities, as well as numerous initiatives to lower corporate costs, and in the second half, were partially offset by the July 2018 sale of the US steel food and steel aerosol business, the transition away from a beverage ends supply agreement in Brazil and the negative impact of poor quality aluminum can sheet from a US-based supplier,” said John A. Hayes, chairman, president and CEO.
“Ball Corporation begins the year well positioned to achieve our 2019 goals of $2 billion in comparable EBITDA and in excess of $1 billion in free cash flow due to continuing strong demand for environmentally favored aluminum packaging and our strong and growing aerospace backlog,” Hayes added. “With cash flow growth, leverage at optimal levels and the board’s recent 50 million share repurchase authorization, the company plans to return in excess of $1 billion to shareholders in 2019 and beyond through a combination of share repurchases and dividends.”
Beverage Packaging, North and Central America, comparable segment operating earnings for the full-year 2018 were $551 million on sales of $4.6 billion compared to $533 million on sales of $4.2 billion in 2017. Segment comparable operating earnings in the fourth quarter of 2018 were $128 million on sales of $1.1 billion, compared to $133 million on sales of $1.0 billion in the fourth quarter of 2017.
Full-year results improved due to mid-single-digit specialty can volume growth and continued favorable packaging mix shift to cans in the sparkling water, import beer, craft beer, wine, and energy categories, and were partially offset by start-up costs related to our new, four-line Goodyear, AZ, facility, higher freight costs and aluminum can sheet quality issues late in the year.
Beverage Packaging, South America comparable segment operating earnings for the full year of 2018 were $313 million on sales of $1.7 billion, compared to $333 million on sales of $1.7 billion in 2017. Segment comparable operating earnings in the fourth quarter 2018 were $78 million on sales of $472 million compared to $128 million on sales of $547 million during the same period in 2017.
Full-year and fourth quarter results reflect the previously disclosed conclusion of the third-party end sales agreement as part of the Rexam acquisition and the loss of certain business in Brazil. Post-presidential election industry can demand has been stronger than expected and announced can line expansions in Argentina, Chile and Paraguay, including the relocation of equipment from previously closed facilities, will serve the growing demand for aluminum beverage packaging across our South American customer base.
Beverage Packaging, Europe comparable segment operating earnings for the full year of 2018 were $282 million on sales of $2.6 billion, compared to $233 million on sales of $2.4 billion in 2017. For the fourth quarter 2018, comparable segment operating earnings were $63 million on sales of $624 million compared to $49 million on sales of $536 million during the same period in 2017.
Full year and fourth quarter segment earnings reflect strong can demand across Europe and Russia as well as improved efficiencies related to streamlining processes and optimizing our plant network. Segment volume was driven by favorable weather conditions and packaging mix shift to cans in the water, carbonated soft drink and beer categories. The company’s new aluminum beverage can facility near Madrid, Spain, completed ramp-up of its two production lines during the quarter and the San Martino, Italy, beverage can facility ceased operations at year-end.
Aerospace comparable segment operating earnings for the full-year 2018 were $113 million on sales of $1.2 billion, compared to $98 million on sales of $991 million in 2017.
“The company’s financial position is strong and our debt portfolio is well positioned at low, fixed rates. Given the strength of our cash flow, we have the flexibility to invest when necessary and continue to return every available dollar of free cash flow to shareholders in 2019 and beyond,” said Scott C. Morrison, SVP and CFO.