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Kraft: Dig In or Move On?

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Depending on how you slice third-quarter results, packaged-foods icon Kraft (NYSE: KFT  ) turned in a performance that was absolutely delectable, merely palatable, or somewhere in between.

Starting with the top line, sales were soured by unfavorable currency movements and lost business related to a divestiture. All told, net revenue slipped 5.7% year over year to $9.8 billion. That number was lower than analysts had expected, and it also represented a sequential decline.

Organic sales (which exclude currency and restructuring effects), conversely, were higher by 0.5%. However, some analysts felt that even this metric was on the soft side. In defense of Kraft, lower prices lopped roughly 1.6% off of sales growth. And rather than some last-ditch attempt to woo consumers through product discounts, the move reflected the company's "adaptive pricing model" in its U.S. Cheese business. In this case, that meant passing along markedly lower dairy costs.

Skeptical? OK, but consider that operating income in Kraft's U.S. Cheese segment climbed by double digits, even as revenue fell. In other words, higher volume and improved product mix more than offset what might be described as misleading segment sales.

Moreover, total volume/product mix (Kraft reports these metrics as a single figure) rose 0.7%, a substantial improvement over the prior quarter's paltry 0.2% gain. That compares to a similar volume performance for cereal-and-snacks maker Kellogg (NYSE: K  ) ; an unsavory 4.3% drop at H.J. Heinz (NYSE: HNZ  ) earlier in the year; and 2% growth (excluding acquisitions) for the outperforming J.M. Smucker (NYSE: SJM  ) . Since these competitors report volume as a stand-alone metric, we're not exactly comparing apples to apples, but it does appear that Kraft is running somewhere in the middle of the pack. Absent the effect of recently discontinued product lines, volume growth would've been about twice the reported number, and management expects strong volumes to boost revenue by 3% next quarter.

Other Kraft businesses fared worse. As a whole, the North American Foodservice segment -- responsible for roughly 10% of 2008 net revenue -- was still weak. Management attributed anemic results to low casual-dining traffic. Certainly, the restaurant industry slump is no secret to Brinker International (NYSE: EAT  ) shareholders, even if select names such as Buffalo Wild Wings (Nasdaq: BWLD  ) have defied the recession.

I know, I know, let's hurry up and get to the bottom line. At first, earnings-per-share growth looks phenomenal, leaping to $0.55 from $0.34 in the year-ago period. However, only $0.09 per share of that increase owed to operating gains, with the remainder stemming from items such as hedging activities, lower taxes, and restructuring charges.

Ultimately, the core business grew EPS by a still-impressive 26.5%. But investors might consider that a lower cost of goods sold -- the direct cost of producing finished products -- pitched in $0.56 per share. No doubt a now-completed restructuring program contributed toward production efficiencies, but it's prudent to wonder to what degree lower commodity prices boosted gross margin. In the future, commodity-driven gains might not be repeatable.

Limited by U.K. law, management couldn't say much about its ongoing pursuit of leading global confectioner Cadbury (NYSE: CBY  ) . However, Kraft did say that it will be disciplined about any potential acquisition, giving priority to the company's investment-grade credit rating and the preservation of its dividend.

At a forward P/E of 12.5, shares might be cheap. However, investors who aren't willing to stomach possible acquisition-related pains could do best to wait on the sidelines.

J.M. Smucker is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. H.J. Heinz is an Income Investor recommendation. Buffalo Wild Wings is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick, and the Fool owns shares of it. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Mike Pienciak doesn't own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has a delicious disclosure policy.

Read/Post Comments (2) | Recommend This Article (6)

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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On November 07, 2009, at 10:53 AM, CatFoodMoney wrote:

    i love cheese !

  • Report this Comment On November 09, 2009, at 11:35 AM, inastrangeland wrote:

    I dumped my shares of KFT a couple months ago. There are a lot more compelling companies in this industry (I bought PG) that have a much better track record. With a middle of the road dividend and the fact that the stock is underperforming the S&P, there are much better places to put your money. As the article mentioned, the net gain was mostly attributable to lower commodity prices, not necessarily improved effeciency. Park you money somewhere else while waiting to see if KFT is for real.

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