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With the Beijing Olympics opening ceremonies today, I'm reminded that the best sprinters save enough energy for a final burst to the finish line. Sara Lee (NYSE: SLE ) showed this winning form in its fourth-quarter earnings release.
The company missed earnings estimates back in February, but insisted this would change in the back half and Sara Lee would make it to a full year of $0.82-$0.88 of adjusted EPS. The final quarter made up for those misses (just barely), and you could hear contented sighs around the table yesterday as the company reported $0.83 of annual adjusted EPS. A squeaker for sure, but with so many companies revising expectations down these days, you have to admire a management team that holds the line and then delivers.
Unit volume grew 1% for the fourth quarter, which looks pretty solid considering Kraft (NYSE: KFT ) and Unilever (NYSE: UL ) reported lower unit sales this quarter. Net sales grew 12%, with pricing and mix adding 4%, and foreign currency adjustments tacking on an additional 7%. All six business segments delivered sales gains for the quarter.
The company reported an earnings-per-share loss of $0.98 for the quarter, but previously announced one-time items related to goodwill impairment took a huge bite ($1.26) out of the results. Net of these unusual items, Sara Lee earned $0.28, $0.02 better than analyst expectations.
Despite these solid results, the stock traded down after the release. I've covered Sara Lee for a while now, and I think management could find a better way to present the "puts and takes" in their quarterly releases. There's no shortage of numbers, but they aren't organized in a way that makes year-over-year comparisons clear. The stock is rebounding today, as investors have had time to wade through all the tables.
Is Sara Lee a buy at this point? These days, I like the prospects of nearly all the consumer-products companies. As a whole, the segment has been able to increase prices without suffering significant volume hits, and it will benefit-big time if commodity and energy costs moderate -- which appears to be happening.
My top picks are still the best-in-breed companies, like Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) and Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL ) -- along with Kraft and the Warren Buffett factor. But with Sara Lee trading at 18 times trailing-12-month earnings, the company deserves a look from Foolish investors who want to buy into a commodity cost decline but don't want to pony up for rivals selling at 20-plus multiples.
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