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Woohoo! Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) is back, baby!
For the first time in several years, the iconic company posted volume growth in the long-flagging North American market. During the second quarter, North American volume advanced 2%. Carbonated-beverage volumes were even with the year-ago period, and still beverages grew 7%. Even the battered U.S. bottled water category gained. This performance puts rival PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP ) squarely in the loser's corner.
Now, I know what the doubters are thinking. But North American currency-neutral sales growth matched volume growth, which means that genuine brand strength, not price-cutting, drove volume. Specifically, management attributed the turnaround to existing price and packaging strategies that are finally paying off, such as the success of Coke's 90-calorie mini-cans. CEO Muhtar Kent wasn't hesitant about the future, either, announcing, "North America will be a growth market of great opportunities for the next 10 years and beyond."
That's a bold claim in my book, and I'll want to see several more quarters of positive results before I believe that Coca-Cola has secured long-term growth in North America. For now, I suppose I'll have to ease up on what has been a generally bearish view of Coca-Cola's U.S. prospects.
Turning now to companywide results, things looked nothing short of solid. On a reported basis, revenue increased 5%, with total company volume up by a similar amount. Earnings per share of $1.02 marked a 16% year-over-year gain. Year-to-date operating cash flow, meanwhile, rose 18% to $4.3 billion.
Business highlights include a strong performance from Coke Zero, which has enjoyed double-digit volume growth for 17 consecutive quarters, crushing the market-share position of its closest competitor. In China, where Coca-Cola improved volume 6% on top of 14% growth in the year-ago period, the company has extended its scale lead versus its chief global competitor.
Finally, management reminded shareholders that the company is 100% hedged against the volatile and generally declining euro. Currency hedges aren't free, but the costs involved are probably well worth the peace of mind.
Of course, we could nitpick. A recent analyst report indicates that Coca-Cola is losing energy-drink market share to Hansen Natural (Nasdaq: HANS ) . Also, I'd like to see the company release sugar-sweetened versions of its popular drinks. Dr Pepper Snapple (NYSE: DPS ) has already done so, and PepsiCo has similar plans in the works. And lest we forget Coca-Cola's pending deal to acquire Coca-Cola Enterprises' (NYSE: CCE ) North American bottling operations, Q4 and the beginning of 2011 could be fraught with integration-related hiccups.
Even so, I'm feeling increasingly positive about Coca-Cola. Back in May, I suggested that shares were a modestly strong buy. Although the stock is up nearly 7% since then, I still think that investors can do well, especially if they wait for the occasional dip.
There are plenty of investment choices when it comes to premier global consumer packaged goods companies -- tobacco top dog Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM ) , for instance, recently upped its forecast -- but if Coca-Cola can get (and keep) its North American house in order, it'll certainly rank among the best of the best.