Should You Still Be Invested in Coca-Cola?

Beverage giant Coca-Cola's (NYSE: KO  ) first-quarter performance was positive across nearly every major financial metric. So why have shares fallen on results?

We'll get there in a moment. First, let's take a look at these numbers that have failed to impress the market.

Revenue of $7.53 billion reflected a 5% year-over-year increase. Favorable currency movements, however, contributed most of the gain. Earnings-per-share growth looked much better: Up 19%, to $0.69, in GAAP terms, and up 23% when excluding special items in the recent and year-ago quarters.

Operating cash flow reached $1.3 billion -- a more than 50% gain that was aided by currency effects and lower pension contributions.

Also, Coca-Cola grew its global nonalcoholic ready-to-drink beverage value share (company sales as a percentage of industry sales) while holding steady volume share (the industry equivalent of market share). Said differently, Coca-Cola successfully raised prices versus the competition, without taking a hit on the amount of product sold. PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP  ) , what say you?

Total company volume, meanwhile, increased 3% in the quarter, with international volume gaining a larger 5%. But I have to call out two salient facts.

One, North American volume sank 2% -- worse than the prior quarter's performance -- indicating that the structural headwinds facing both Coca-Cola and key competitor PepsiCo continue to blow full force.

Now, let's shuffle on over to Exhibit No. 2. Here, we see that total "sparkling" (aka carbonated) volume gained 2% for the quarter, with international sparkling volume, at 3% growth, only slightly ahead. Meanwhile, total "still" volume -- composed of juices, flavored waters, teas, etc. -- jumped 8%, with international markets posting 12% growth.

Essentially, if we take away the two factors that originally gave rise to Coca-Cola's success -- soda products in general, and the U.S. market in particular -- today's Coca-Cola would be a growth powerhouse. That's the sort of irony that doesn't go down smoothly.

And I think that we can start right there in explaining the market's negative reaction.

Furthermore, there's integration risk in Coca-Cola's pending acquisition of Coca-Cola Enterprises' (NYSE: CCE  ) North American bottling operations. We're already hearing that this transaction, which isn't even expected to close until Q4, is heading for problems. A representative of the Teamsters union was recently quoted as saying that Coca-Cola's move will "hurt customer relations and provoke a work stoppage ... not only in Southern California but in other key markets as well."

Bartender, make that a rum and Coke.

Look, I understand the investment appeal of Coca-Cola, given its global scope and brand recognition. But investors can take just a half step to the side and find what I consider superior companies. Take Andina and FEMSA (NYSE: FMX  ) , for instance, both of which bottle Coca-Cola products but are focused on the fast-growing Latin American market.

Or, if you don't mind being invested in consumer-oriented companies that are tackling structural challenges, why not look to the telecom sector, where you can at least collect a 5-6%-ish dividend yield ? Verizon (NYSE: VZ  ) , AT&T (NYSE: T  ) , and Vodafone (NYSE: VOD  ) all fit that profile.

Coca-Cola may eventually surprise doubters and dramatically turn around U.S. operations. But until then, I see no compelling reason to hold shares, not at today's prices.

Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Andina and FEMSA are Global Gains picks. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are Income Investor picks. Motley Fool Options has recommended a roll your diagonal call position on PepsiCo. Try any of our Foolish newsletters, free for 30 days.

Fool contributor Mike Pienciak holds no financial interest in any company mentioned in this article. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On May 07, 2010, at 12:04 AM, rfaramir wrote:

    Eliminate all union position. End of union problem. If you can...

    (Long KO)

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