Should PepsiCo Annouce a Major Strategic Shift?

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By most measures, it was a great year for consumer giant PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP  ) , yet the market seemed disappointed by the company's results. PepsiCo reported solid organic revenue growth as well as earnings growth. And, it announced a major increase in the amount of cash it's going to send back to shareholders this year. In all, PepsiCo upheld its reputation as a blue chip with a world-class brand.

One reason for the market's apathy might be the continued struggles of PepsiCo's flagship beverage unit. Consumer attitudes are rapidly shifting in North America, and they're steadily shying away from sugary carbonated beverages. This begs the question: Should PepsiCo pursue a major strategic initiative to shake things up?

PepsiCo's earnings rundown
For 2013, PepsiCo reported a 1% increase in total revenue and 10% earnings growth. PepsiCo's tepid revenue growth is disappointing, but it's worth noting the company was weighed down by currency fluctuations. Organic revenue, which strips out currency effects, rose 4% in 2013. PepsiCo did particularly well in the emerging markets. Organic sales in its Asia, Middle East, and Africa division posted an 11% increase last year.

PepsiCo expects 2014 to be another strong year. Management projects 7% core earnings growth after stripping out currency fluctuations and mid-single digit organic revenue growth.

Snacks vs. beverages
Among PepsiCo's product mix, there was again a notable difference between its food and beverage divisions. Beverage volumes fell 2% in the Americas, while snack volumes increased 3%. Similar conditions were seen in Europe, where beverage volumes fell 2% and snack volumes rose 2%.

Stagnating sales volumes of sparkling beverages have afflicted PepsiCo's results as well as those of Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) . Coca-Cola has struggled through the first three fiscal quarters. North American volumes are up just 1% over that time, reflecting the changing consumer landscape.

In response, Coca-Cola is shaking things up by partnering with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR  ) to develop at-home soda machines using Green Mountain's existing Keurig technology. Coca Cola will invest $1.2 billion for a 10% stake in Green Mountain to launch the Keurig Cold beverage platform. The deal is Coca-Cola's attempt to rejuvenate growth, while Green Mountain now has the backing of one of the world's most valuable brands and distribution networks.

PepsiCo has not announced a similar initiative. To soothe investor concerns, PepsiCo announced a major cash return program. PepsiCo increased its quarterly dividend by 15% and announced it would likely repurchase $5 billion of its own shares this year. In 2014, PepsiCo expects to return $8.7 billion to shareholders through dividends and share buybacks, which would represent a 36% increase over last year's capital returns.

Does strategic direction need clarity?
There wasn't much on the surface that the market should have been terribly upset with from PepsiCo's 2013 report. The company is doing a good job navigating a slow-growth economy. Its dividend increase and plan to increase share repurchases were just icing on the cake for investors. One thing that the market may be using as reason to sell PepsiCo is the lack of a major strategic announcement.

For example, PepsiCo's investor base has pushed the company to spin off its North American beverage unit. Sales in PepsiCo's flagship North American beverage segment have flat-lined in recent years as American consumers adopt calorie-conscious dietary habits. Others are hoping PepsiCo launches a similar strategic initiative to the partnership between Coca-Cola and Green Mountain.

It looks like PepsiCo will stay the course
Some might think PepsiCo may need something big to move the needle. However, management is in no rush to do anything drastic, which seems prudent. PepsiCo doesn't want to spin off its North American beverage business since it's still hugely profitable and represents a major brand connection with consumers.

In addition, PepsiCo seems reluctant to enter the at-home cold beverage business. There may be good reason for this, as the product has yet to really take hold with consumers. Consumers enjoy brewing coffee at home; whether they widely adopt making their own sodas has yet to be proven.

As a result, investors shouldn't at all be disappointed by PepsiCo's 2013 results or its future strategy. Instead, investors should be excited. Its outlook calls for 2014 to be another year of growth and continued penetration in the emerging markets; plus the company's aggressive cost-savings initiative will produce strong profits for many years.

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Bob Ciura

Bob Ciura, MBA, has written for The Motley Fool since 2012. I focus on energy, consumer goods, and technology. I look for growth at a reasonable price, with a particular fondness for market-beating dividend yields.

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