Should I Buy Associated British Foods?

LONDON -- It's time to go shopping for shares again, but where to start? Recovering bank RBS? Smoker's friend British American Tobacco? Or maybe a gulp of Diageo?

There are plenty of great stocks to choose from, and I'm enjoying doing some window shopping. So here's the question I'm asking right now: Should I buy Associated British Foods (LSE: ABF.L  ) ?

Food and fashion
Associated British Foods is a multinational food-processing giant that boast brands such as Ovaltine, Ryvita, Silver Spoon, Patak's, Jordans, and Twinings. It is also the world's second-largest producer of sugar and baker's yeast, as well as those mysterious ingredients you see listed on food packaging -- enzymes, emulsifiers, and lactose.

But that isn't what's getting investors' gastric juices flowing right now. It's not the food but the fashion investors are hungering for -- in the shape of ABF's low-cost fashion division, Primark.

Chic and cheerful
If you believe in investing in what you know, I should already own ABF, aka Primark. Every time I meet my teenage nieces, another wedge of their pocket money has been invested in the store's skinny jeans, printed blouses, earrings, shoes, boots, trousers, and accessories, all at prices you won't believe.

But Primark isn't just for the kids. In these troubled times, its budget fashion is helping grown-ups stay cool for less cash. It's a glitzy combo, helping Primark beat the recession and youth unemployment and post a 3% rise in like-for-like sales in the 12 months to mid-September. Even the Olympics couldn't compete; summer trading in the U.K. was particularly strong.

You would think a company whose key markets are Britain, Ireland, and Spain would be struggling right now, but it's quite the reverse. With pricey brands such as Burberry losing their cool, cheap chic is where it's at. As Primark expands across Europe, opening 19 stores this year (making it 242 in total), it expects total sales to rise 15% this year.

A good Weston
ABF, which is 55% owned by chief executive George Weston and his family, is also expecting sweet returns from its sugar business, thanks to strong European and African revenues, which should offset slowing sales in China.

The rising cost of raw materials is threatening margins, especially after ABF decided against passing on the rising cost of cotton to its customers. More expensive wheat could up the pressure. Yet the outlook for the group remains promising. It publishes its full-year results on Nov. 6, and analysts expect its pre-tax profits to have risen 25% to 952 million pounds.

Safe style
ABF's share price has risen strongly in recent months, up 12% since the beginning of June. If Primark can turn on the style, whatever the economic climate, ABF could prove a good defensive buy.

But investors won't bag a bargain here. The stock looks fairly priced at 15.1 times earnings, and the yield is modest at 1.9%, covered three times. If you want to buy fashion on the cheap, you will have to head to one of its stores.

A perfect fit
Along with ABF, other companies I'm thinking about buying are named in "Eight Shares Held By Britain's Super Investor," a special in-depth report by Motley Fool analysts. The report is completely free and shows where dividend maestro Neil Woodford believes the best high-yield stocks are to be found today.

Are you looking to profit as a long-term investor? "10 Steps To Making A Million In The Market" is the latest Motley Fool guide to help Britain invest. Better. We urge you to read the report today -- while it's still free and available.

Further Motley Fool investment opportunities:

Harvey holds Diageo and RBS. He doesn't own any other shares mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.


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