Why Campbell Soup Could Be a Winner Come Rain or Shine

Is the US economy set to reach higher highs or struggle with the effects of tapering? Either way, Campbell Soup could prove to be a pivotal play for Foolish investors -- here's why.

May 15, 2014 at 11:07AM

With the US economy having had a tough time during the credit crunch, there could be value in seeking out companies that performed relatively well in spite of one of the biggest recessions in recent history. That's because while the US and global economy seems to be picking up pace, investors shouldn't take anything for granted and, as history tells us, market downturns are never absent indefinitely.

Of course, the US economy could hit higher highs and brush to one side the potentially destabilizing effects of a reduction in the Federal Reserve's monthly asset repurchase program and a rising interest rate. Therefore, companies with strong growth potential in this circumstance are, clearly, very attractive.

Why Campbell Soup could offer the 'best of both' for investors
One company that I feel is unlikely to be heavily affected by the future performance of the economy  is Campbell Soup (NYSE:CPB). It rode out the recession pretty well, with earnings per share (EPS) occupying a narrow range over the last five years. They were as high as $2.44 in 2012 and only slipped back as far as $2.19 last year. This shows that, even though the economy was going through a rough patch, the company was able to deliver strong relative performance.

Of course this is no surprise, since a company that sells food is less likely to see earnings fall off of a cliff during a challenging economic period. However, what impresses me about Campbell Soup is that it offers defensive qualities as well as strong growth potential. For instance, it is forecast to increase EPS by 15.5% in the current year (to July 2014) and by around 5% in the year to July 2015. Although these figures are a long way from the double-digit growth forecasts that many of Campbell Soup's index peers can offer, the resilience of Campbell Soup's growth is likely to be higher than most. In other words, the chances of Campbell Soup delivering on its growth potential are likely to be higher than for most S&P 500 stocks, since it is far less dependent upon economic circumstances.

While Campbell Soup has been resilient, not all consumer goods stocks have been
  Tough economic times can, of course, cause major headaches for consumer goods companies. For example, Avon Products (NYSE:AVP) saw its EPS collapse over the last five years, with it being as high as $1.43 in 2009 before falling to a loss per share of $0.01 in 2013. Clearly, Avon Products has experienced challenges in China (with the company being under investigation for a number of years due to bribery claims that were settled two weeks ago with a $135 million fine), but this should not, in my opinion, hide the fact that its earnings are highly cyclical. They are very dependent upon the strength of the economy and how much disposable income is available to consumers, with Avon's products being traded for less product or cheaper product in a downturn.

While Avon Products has struggled, Bed Bath And Beyond has performed well
On the flip side, companies such as Bed, Bath And Beyond (NASDAQ:BBBY) have prospered under tough economic circumstances. It has grown EPS from $1.66 in 2009 to $4.79 in 2014, with the company also having annualized growth forecasts of around 7% over the next two years. Despite this, shares are at a one year low, owing mainly to a drop in fourth quarter sales figures and an outlook for the first quarter of the current year that is below what the market was expecting. Still, full-year expectations remain relatively attractive (as mentioned) and the plus side to the depressed share price is that shares in Bed Bath And Beyond can be picked up on a forward P/E of just 11.1, while the forward P/E of the S&P 500 is 15.7.

Why Campbell Soup deserves a valuation premium
In addition to offering earnings resilience and growth prospects, shares in Campbell Soup also come at a fair price. For instance, while the S&P 500's forward price to earnings ratio (P/E) is currently 15.7, Campbell Soup's P/E of 17 may at first seem rather high (especially when Bed Bath And Beyond's forward P/E is just 11.1). However, when the strength of Campbell Soup's brand portfolio (and the customer loyalty that it commands) is taken into account, a premium to the wider index seems to be deserved, in my view.

For example, brands including Prego, Pepperidge Farm, and V8 are well-diversified and appeal to differing types of customers at different price points. Furthermore, with many of Campbell Soup's brands having been around for over a generation, the level of customer loyalty toward them is likely to be high and, as with the company's earnings, resilient. Clearly, this is great news for shareholders and, in my view, means that Campbell Soup's shares deserve to trade at a premium to the wider index.

Looking ahead – Campbell Soup has potential
Of course, a premium also takes into account the resilience of Campbell Soup's earnings, which as the last five years have shown are unlikely to slide too far in tough economic times. As a result of this (and the company's future growth potential), Campbell Soup seems to offer the 'best of both worlds' and could deliver strong future performance, come rain or shine for the US and world economy.

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Robert Stephens has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Bed Bath & Beyond. 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.

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