Head to Head: SABMiller vs Diageo  

LONDON -- In this series, some of your favorite FTSE 100 shares go head to head in a three-round contest for superiority.

In Round 1, the firms fight on earnings; in Round 2, on dividends; and Round 3 is a battle of the balance sheets. The winner will be the company that has racked up most points at the end of the contest.

Stepping into the ring today are beer behemoth SABMiller (LSE: SAB.L  ) and spirits giant Diageo (LSE: DGE.L  ) .

Alcohol consumption typically increases in gloomy economic times, and SABMiller and Diageo have outperformed the FTSE 100 over the last three, six, and 12 months. Over six months, the FTSE 100 is down 1%, but SABMiller's shares have risen 7% and Diageo's 14%.

Let's take our seats at ringside.

Round 1: Earnings

SABMiller

Diageo

Recent share price 2,720 pence 1,740 pence
Last year price-to-earnings ratio 21.4 18.5
Current year forecast P/E 18.0 16.9
Four-year earnings per share compound annual growth rate (CAGR) (%) 11 10
Current year forecast EPS growth (%) 18 9
Operating margin (%) 23 23

Sources: Digital Look, Morningstar, company reports. Winners in bold.

The first round is tight, and the companies share the points. Diageo scores for its lower P/E, SABMiller for its higher earnings growth, and the pair are all square on operating margin.

Round 2: Dividends

SABMiller

Diageo

Last year dividend yield (%) 2.1 2.5
Current year forecast dividend yield (%) 2.4 2.8
Four-year dividend CAGR (%) 12 6
Current year forecast dividend growth (%) 10 10
Forecast dividend cover 2.3 2.1

Sources: Digital Look, Morningstar, company reports. Winners in bold.

Round two is another hard-fought round with the companies again sharing the points. Diageo scores better on yield and matches SABMiller on forecast growth. SABMiller takes points for historic growth and forecast dividend cover.

Round 3: Balance sheet

SABMiller

Diageo

Price-to-book ratio 2.7 6.4
Net gearing (%) 74 135

Sources: Digital Look, Morningstar, company reports. Winners in bold.

SABMiller finishes strongly, taking both points in the final round, and edges to an overall victory after the first two rounds were tied. The points tally is: SABMiller seven and Diageo five.

Post-match assessment
This was a close-fought contest. SABMiller's superior earnings and dividend growth, together with better numbers in the balance-sheet round, enabled it to emerge the winner.

It's worth noting, though, that Diageo's earnings and dividend growth are very decent indeed, despite being below the level of SABMiller's. Furthermore, Diageo took four of the five valuation-ratio points -- historic and forecast P/E, and historic and forecast dividend yield -- while SABMiller managed only one valuation point for its lower P/B.

SABMiller and Diageo are powerful companies with strong brands and good margins. They've been resilient performers during troubled economic times and the market rates them highly. Many investors are prepared to pay a premium price, as attested to by P/Es well above the market average and dividend yields well below.

These are the sort of companies it pays potential investors to be patient about. You're unlikely to get a good entry point after a sustained background period of economic uncertainty has led the market to drive up their share prices. You can bet that at some time in the future brewers and distillers will be unloved by the market and their ratings will get left behind, or that some temporary company-specific scare will produce a negative market overreaction, giving patient investors a good opportunity to invest.

Patience is one of the qualities that can build you a bigger investment return than you might think possible. If you are looking to profit as a serious long-term investor, I recommend you download the Motley Fool's free guide to help Britain invest better: "10 Steps to Making a Million in the Market." The guide is available for a limited time only, but can be in your inbox immediately simply by clicking here.

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Further investment opportunities:

G.A. Chester does not have an interest in any of the companies listed. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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