Don’t Fear Coke

While its beverages remain bubbly, Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) shares have fizzled away over the past few months, down some 23% since they hit a 52-week high in January. However, despite the many problems the company is currently facing, I think investors with a long-term outlook will eventually see Coke pop out of this sluggish state.

The market didn’t like the slowdown in Coke’s volume growth in the second quarter to 3% from 6% a year ago, but the underlying financial performance was strong. Coke reported a 17% increase in revenue and a 19% increase in earnings per share, ignoring the effects of another massive (noncash) writedown from anchor bottler and equity investee Coca-Cola Enterprises (NYSE: CCE  ) . While 9% of top-line growth was because of the weak dollar, I can think of much worse things to have in a portfolio right now than a natural weak-dollar hedge. With most Americans already long the dollar compared to other foreign currencies, an investment in Coke seems a nice complement to many portfolios.

Coke bears will doubtlessly point out that CCE’s $5.3 billion write-off cannot be dismissed so easily. The bottler has now written off more than $8 billion since 2006 -- coincidentally, about as much as the company’s total market capitalization today. I think this cat has been out of the bag for years -- the vast majority of intangibles on CCE’s balance sheet are worthless, and have been for a long time. Coca-Cola inflated its earnings in the 1990s by selling bottlers to CCE at earnings multiples that implied long-term growth assumptions that have since proven to be ridiculously optimistic.

If you’re an investor in Coke, CCE is a mixed blessing. Because KO owns about a third of CCE, the bottler’s results impact KO’s earnings. But CCE also serves as a shock absorber for KO investors in a time of great commodity cost inflation or weakness in the North American economy. I cannot think of a time when such a relationship has been more beneficial to KO investors than right now -- other than perhaps the 1990s, when the company was selling Florida swampland to CCE investors (in the form of independent bottlers at inflated prices) and claiming prime oceanfront views.

There are still considerable issues facing Coke investors in the short term. SunTrust Banks (NYSE: STI  ) owns about 44 million shares of Coke stock, dating back to the original IPO, that it will likely soon sell in order to raise capital. That certainly could put pressure on the share price. Also, with CCE performing so poorly, it has been suggested that Coke should buy its largest bottler and restore it to financial and operational health, as it has done in the past with other, though much smaller, struggling bottlers. I think this is very unlikely, as Coke is very aware of the value of having a little brother to take some of its punches during tough economic times, just as Pepsi Bottling Group (NYSE: PBG  ) does for rival Pepsi (NYSE: PEP  ) .

Finally, many of Coke’s bottlers, including CCE, will be forced to increase prices dramatically in the second half of this year, with percentage increases even approaching the double digits. My Foolish colleague Alyce Lomax recently lamented this fact and its impact on her cola habit. While I think Alyce and consumers throughout the world might initially balk at higher prices for Coke products, my bet is that these “hardened addicts” won’t stay away for long.

Related Foolishness:

Coca-Cola is an Inside Value selection. The Motley Fool’s newsletters are available for free 30-day trials and are known to be highly addictive but surprisingly low in calories.

Fool contributor Matthew Reilly does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. The Fool’s disclosure policy drinks more Tab than your high school drama teacher.


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