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Fiscal 2010 third-quarter sales at the consumer-staples company advanced a mere 1% year over year, to $1.37 billion. That's a real letdown compared to the previous quarter, when the maker of Kingsford charcoal and Glad bags posted 5% sales growth. Moreover, the year-ago Q3 period offered a much easier comparison than the year-ago Q2, making this most recent performance particularly disappointing.
Product promotions, in the form of retailer incentives and rebates, reduced sales by two percentage points. Also, hyperinflation in Venezuela -- which has affected finances at a range of companies, including Halliburton, Unisys, and direct competitors Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) and Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL ) , lopped off a similar amount.
Little surprise, then, that volume growth of 3% outpaced sales growth, in contrast to lockstep increases in these metrics in the previous quarter.
Yet there are two pieces of good news. First, U.S. market share through the 52 weeks ended in February was up slightly versus the prior period. So the company's holding its own vis-a-vis competitors. Second, and more importantly, earnings per share increased 7%, to $1.16.
On the other hand, the bottom-line growth, while certainly helped by the small sales gain, largely owed to lower interest expenses and the absence of year-ago restructuring costs. Even when we do factor in the $0.07-per-share loss from the Venezuelan situation, I can’t call this a high-quality earnings performance.
In fairness, working capital substantially increased, reducing cash flow. Furthermore, the company's expansion of accounts receivable probably won't persist in future quarters. Clorox also sports a mildly encouraging outcome, with expected fiscal 2011 EPS growth of roughly 8%, at the midpoint of guidance. That's not too shabby.
Commodity prices are a wild card, though. Right now, management expects that fiscal 2011 cost cuts will exceed the impact of raw-materials inflation, but I wouldn’t put 100% faith in that forecast. As a portfolio offset, I recommend that investors with significant exposure to Clorox -- or any other consumer-packaged goods company, for that matter -- also hold shares of commodity names.
On that note, long-term, aggressive-minded investors might consider Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC ) or BP (NYSE: BP ) , whose shares are down significantly in connection with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill sell-off.
Ultimately, my prior view that a low relative valuation gives Clorox shares room to run in a stronger economy may have been optimistic. When it comes to household goods, consumers simply aren't returning to brands to the degree that many had hoped.
Nonetheless, put a 15 price-to-earnings multiple on the midpoint of management's fiscal 2011 forecast, and you've got a $68-plus stock. For a margin of safety, I'd want to buy in the high $50s.