A Messy Quarter for This Bleach Baron

Clorox (NYSE: CLX  ) did manage to top analysts' expectations for earnings in its fiscal second quarter, with earnings per share from continuing operations at $0.68, versus an average analyst estimate of $0.61. But getting to that $0.68 result takes a little finagling.

First, that number excludes a hefty goodwill writedown for the company's Burt's Bees business. It's a good business and one of the fastest-growing areas for Clorox, but it appears -- particularly in light of the recession -- that Clorox may have simply paid too much for it; thus the $258 million goodwill hit. On the flip side, the results also back out a $177 million gain from the sale of the company's auto-care business and $7 million in earnings from that segment.

After all that maneuvering, you do get to an adjusted earnings number that topped Wall Street.

It was a good quarter then?
Not quite. Analysts may have underestimated the company's bottom line, but on that adjusted basis, Clorox's EPS was up just 3% from last year. And that was actually the good news, as total company sales dropped 3% year over year.

Fortunately, it doesn't look like this bad quarter will mean future bad quarters. Part of the revenue decline was because sales of bleach and disinfectant wipes soared last year as the H1N1 virus was freaking everyone out. The company was also pinched by the currency-devaluation in Venezuela, which we also saw dragging down results at Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL  ) . Excluding the Venezuela impact would have left sales flat with last year.

Past those one-time speed bumps, though, it's clear that consumers are still struggling. The company made particular mention of the fact that its products saw strong performance in "value-oriented retail channels like dollar and club" -- which means low-price havens like Costco (Nasdaq: COST  ) and Dollar General (NYSE: DG  ) . While the strong performance in these channels may be good for Clorox (and is almost certainly good for those retailers), it still suggests that many consumers have been focused on value, which isn't ideal for a company that sells higher-priced, branded goods like Clorox.

That's the bad news
Clorox's management is staying optimistic, though. During the conference call, management cited what appear to be some positive sales trends in many of its products, particularly premium-price products such as Burt's Bees and Hidden Valley Ranch. Then there's the fact that in the final half of the year the company won't have the Venezuela currency debacle or the H1N1 bump from last year dragging down year-over-year comparisons. This could all add up to the next two quarters looking markedly better than the first two of the fiscal year.

Of course, whether we're talking about Clorox, Colgate, Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG  ) , or any of the other major branded consumer staples companies, the bottom line is that they need a sustained economic recovery. Innovation will help. A larger international presence will help. But in the end, a brighter economic backdrop is a must.

As for Clorox, it may not be the prettiest stock in the consumer staples space, but its smaller size, product mix, and cash-flow generation still put its stock toward the top of my list for the industry. That said, I'll be looking for proof that management's optimism is actually panning out in the quarters ahead.

Keep up to date on Clorox by adding it to your Foolish watchlist.

Costco is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Costco is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Clorox and Procter & Gamble are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. The Fool owns shares of Costco. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. You can check out what Matt is keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool or on his RSS feed. The Fool's disclosure policy prefers dividends over a sharp stick in the eye.


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