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Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Earnings: What to Watch For

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Wall Street analysts expect Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR  ) to hit the high end of management's earnings guidance when it reports fiscal first-quarter earnings on Wednesday. Striking the high end of guidance could reignite traders' confidence in the stock, but long-term investors will be more interested in management's comments about the Keurig 2.0 system.

Green Mountain had a solid 2013; it grew revenue 16% to $4.4 billion, and adjusted earnings per share grew 45% to $3.39. The fourth quarter was strong as well: revenue was up 22% and adjusted EPS increased 56% compared to the year-ago quarter.

However, the company's strong 2013 results created a difficult comparable year for Green Mountain to build on; it disappointed investors when it announced guidance for high-single digit revenue growth and 12% adjusted EPS growth for 2014. Moreover, management expects most of that growth to come in the second half of the fiscal year, as last year's first and second quarters were especially strong. Management gave a Q1 adjusted EPS estimate of $0.85 to $0.90, and most analysts expect it to hit the high end of that range -- the consensus estimate compiled by MarketWatch is $0.89.

Bulls and bears
Green Mountain has been a battleground stock ever since hedge fund manager David Einhorn announced he was short the stock due to funky accounting and patent expirations. Although there are plenty of Green Mountain short-sellers, perhaps even more investors are long the stock.

The winner in the epic struggle between bulls and bears will ultimately be decided by Green Mountain's product innovations. The Keurig brewer's outstanding success led to enormous growth for the company; any coffee company that wanted to sell Keurig-compatible portion packs had to pay Green Mountain for the privilege. However, Green Mountain's valuable K-Cup patent expired in 2012, enabling coffee companies to manufacture unlicensed K-Cups.

As of the end of last quarter, management estimates 12% of K-Cups sold through retail channels are unlicensed brands -- meaning they do not touch Green Mountain at all. Although unlicensed brands' share is growing, the more worrying consideration for investors is how much licensed companies like Starbucks and Dunkin' Brands are willing to pay Green Mountain to pack and distribute their coffee. These companies could just as easily partner with any white-label manufacturer to make their K-Cups, so Green Mountain must have offered them generous terms.

Green Mountain has a plan to solve the K-Cup commoditization problem, and, if it works, the shorts will lose their shirts. The next generation of Keurig brewers -- Keurig 2.0 -- will feature interactive-reader technology that only works with Green Mountain's new patented version of the K-Cup. If successful, this could reignite Green Mountain's growth.

To be successful, Keurig 2.0 has to escape a catch-22: The brewer needs a wide selection of compatible products to attract customers, and it needs a lot of customers to attract a wide selection of compatible products. It also needs to be demonstrably better than competing brewers to convince consumers to buy it.

Despite the uphill battle Green Mountain must fight -- against its own Keurig 1.0 brewer, no less -- some investors believe the next-generation brewer will do just fine. The company's partnerships with Starbucks and other major brands, in addition to its widespread name recognition, give it a respectable chance of success. One thing the bulls and bears agree on is this: Green Mountain needs the Keurig 2.0 to succeed.

What to watch for
Investors will know Green Mountain's fate when the Keurig 2.0 brewing system either gains widespread acceptance or it flops. Keep an eye out for unlicensed share, which will probably be mentioned on the conference call. Management is trying to sign up unlicensed brands; if it is successful, then it may have an easier time extending those relationships to provide a wide selection for the Keurig 2.0.

If you have an opinion on whether or not the Keurig 2.0 will take flight, you may be able to take advantage of it after earnings. If you are bullish on Keurig 2.0 and Green Mountain misses estimates, the stock may dip and provide a buying opportunity. If you are more skeptical about Keurig 2.0's prospects -- as I am -- then an earnings beat and subsequent increase in the stock price may provide an opportunity to short the stock.

The important thing to remember is that Green Mountain's future is still in the future. Though the market may be focused on this quarter's earnings, informed investors will use the market's short-sightedness as an opportunity to place a bet on a long-term view.

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Ted Cooper

Ted Cooper is a value investor based in Texas. He does not ride a horse to work.

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