Is Green Mountain Headed for Greener Pastures?

Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR  ) is a stock many love to hate, including me. So it came as no surprise that upon a tepid earnings release on Wednesday, bears jumped on the stock as if it were a salmon heading upstream. In reality (far from the domicile of Mr. Market), Green Mountain Coffee actually posted a decent quarter, and its outlook is closer to analyst expectations than originally thought. But the biggest questions in the minds of many are whether company management has rectified the accounting issues that triggered 2011's short campaign from famed investor David Einhorn, and how the company is navigating in a post-K-Cup-patent world. Has Green Mountain moved on to greener pastures, or is it still in the mud?

Skeptical growth
Whether you like the company or not, it is impossible to deny its impressive growth over a relatively short period of time. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, with all of its ups and downs, gave its shareholders more than 500% in capital appreciation over a five-year period. If shareholders were lucky enough to jump ship in 2011, they would have locked in over 1,100% in three-and-a-half years. You only need one of those in your portfolio to live easy for the rest of your days.

Like many a too-good-to-be-true story, though, it appeared Green Mountain was... too good to be true. At the 2011 Value Investing Congress, David Einhorn took to the stage lambasting Green Mountain's accounting practices and its pending K-Cup patent expiration. He wondered why the company stopped providing investors with some crucial K-Cup consumption figures, and it quickly became clear that Green Mountain's meteoric growth was slowing down. His presentation sank the stock like the Bismarck from triple digits to barely over $15 per share.

The stock has recovered to just under $50 since then, but Einhorn is still short and doesn't find the company in much better shape than it was two years ago. The hedge fund manager has yet to comment about Green Mountain's latest accounting standards, but as of last October he was still highly skeptical that the company had properly addressed its numbers issues.

So what were the numbers for this latest earnings release, and do they seem cleaner than previous quarters'?

Soft beat
Green Mountain managed to eke out a few bucks over analyst sales estimates with $1.34 billion, or $0.70 per share, in earnings. Consensus estimates hovered around $0.65. This was the first full quarter the company operated after its K-Cup patent expired and knockoffs began flooding the market.

It would appear on the surface as though Green Mountain is navigating these free-market waters quite well, with stabilizing sales after last quarter's drop due to imitators taking up real estate on the shelves. Are K-Cup addicts that brand-sensitive, or have the generic labels just not been able to put a big enough dent in the market share yet?

The masters of generic either are in development or have already released a K-product: Wal-Mart's Café Escapes, SUPERVALU's private-label brand, to name just a couple.

Given that the private-label brands are still young in their life cycles, I don't think Green Mountain Coffee is out of the weeds yet.

What initially drove down shares, though, wasn't any number from the reported quarter, but guidance for the next. The company announced it was expecting 14% to 18% sales growth for the current quarter, missing the 20% the Street wanted. The later rebound likely occurred after analysts and investors digested the increased full-year guidance.

Foolish bottom line
Green Mountain's results were fine. That's about the best word I can think of for what I saw. So far, there isn't much outcry about any accounting deficiencies, suggesting that we can take these numbers as representative of the facts. But the elephant in the room remains private-label K-Cups. The generics have only been allowed on shelves since October, and there is plenty of time for word of mouth to spring into action and whisper the sweet sound of bargains into consumers' ears. And let's not forget that coffee overlord Starbucks has trekked into the space as well with its Verismo single-serve espresso and coffee machines.

With a trailing-12-month P/E of 20 and a forward ratio of 14.85, I find the shares richly valued with a shortening growth runway. Investors who are hoping the company's shares will return to their former glory are, in my opinion, gravely mistaken. If you need a caffeine fix for your portfolio, your best bet may still be Starbucks for reliable, stable growth.

More GMCR goodness
With Green Mountain as cheap as it's ever been, many investors are wondering whether this is the end of the former market darling, or the perfect entry point for an enormous rebound. You can find our recommendation for how to play the company in our new premium research report. In it you'll find everything you need to know about Green Mountain, including whether it's a buy at today's prices. Click here for instant access.


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