Should You Buy J Sainsbury Today?

LONDON -- Shares in supermarket heavyweight J Sainsbury (LSE: SBRY  ) (NASDAQOTH: JSAIY  ) have leapt higher in recent weeks, spiking more than 16% from mid-January's multimonth lows to recent highs around 375 pence -- the loftiest price in almost two years.

Sainsbury's continues to grab market share from its main rivals, particularly other London-listed plays Tesco and Wm. Morrison, which is crucial during tough times for Britain's retailers. And I expect the firm to ring up accelerating sales momentum over the long term, bolstered by new store openings, surging activity at its online and "convenience" businesses, and rising demand for its non-edible products. Further, Sainsbury's multiyear brand development program is also paying off handsomely, helped by the recent horsemeat scandal that has thumped customer confidence in Sainsbury's competitors.

Latest trading numbers confirm rising earnings prospects
The supermarket giant announced last week that total sales rose 7.1% in the fourth quarter, accelerating from 3.9% in Q3 and delivering full-year growth of 4.6%. And on a like-for-like basis, sales rose 4.2% in October and December, up from third-quarter growth of 1.5% and pushing total annual growth 2.1% higher.

These rising revenues are expected to maintain Sainsbury's multiyear growth pattern. According to City analysts, a 6% earnings-per-share rise to 30 pence in the year ending March 2013 will be followed by a 5% increase in 2014 to 31 pence. And a further 6% increase to 33 pence is penciled in for 2015.

Indeed, these stellar earnings prospects are set to drive the retailer further away from the current forward P/E reading of 13.2 for the broader food and drug retailers sector. Brokers say an earnings multiple of 12.6 for this year is predicted to drop to 12.1 and 11.4, respectively, in 2014 and 2015.

Stock up on delectable dividends
The prospect of bigger shareholder payouts seals the investment case, in my opinion, with the retailer's progressive dividend policy expected to produce further payout increases. Following the 7% dividend increase to 16.1 pence last year, analysts are predicting a payout of 16.8 pence this year to be followed by dividends of 17.4 pence and 18.1 pence, respectively, in 2014 and 2015. And these prospective payments carry respective yields of 4.5%, 4.6%, and 4.8% for the next three years, comfortably beating the current FTSE 100 average.

Although dividend coverage is expected to remain stable around 1.8 times during this period -- just south of the perceived safety target of two times -- I believe that Sainsbury's robust earnings projections, combined with its proven commitment to dividend-building, should copper-bottom investor confidence.

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