Dec 1, 1999 at 12:00AM
Imagine 2010. That makes 1999 sound prehistoric, not to mention how it makes 1998, 1997, or, gulp, 1990 sound. For the Drip Port, the quick approach of 2000 means that we may not make a new purchase over this entire calendar year. Our last new purchase was announced in September 1998, when we said that we "was buying Mellon Financial (NYSE: MEL)." (Our English has improved since them old days.)
Following our Mellon purchase, Brian and I (mainly Brian) dove into the oil and gas industry. After studying the industry for about six months, we decided to ixnay (to speak Pig Latin) the holewa hingta (whole thing). We ended the study without a purchase. Exxon (NYSE: XON) and its pending partner Mobil were most interesting to us, but too many questions remained, which kept us from taking the 20-year plunge. Some of those questions were answered this week, so we will eventually return to this company (now singular, or soon to be) for further consideration.
Following our marathon oil and gas study, we began to indulge ourselves in food and beverage stocks again. This time around, we're looking for a replacement for our lame duck, Campbell Soup (NYSE: CPB). Our new food and beverage study has taken several months, pushing us ever closer to 2000 without a conclusion. However, we may now -- finally -- be on the cusp of a decision. We may even be able to make our decision before 2000.
The three finalists in our food and beverage study are (with descriptions to avoid confusion) the Coke-selling giant, Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO), the Pepsi beverage seller, PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP), and the Wrigley-gum-touting behemoth, Wrigley (NYSE: WWY). (And you're reading the online site that talks about investing Foolishly, The Motley Fool.) In recent columns published in this space by nondiscerning editors, Brian and I shared our subjective favorites among these three companies. We also hypothesized about our likely favorite companies when determined objectively (analytically). To get below the surface of this second vital determinant, we need to dig... well, below the surface.
That is hard work, and you'll see no such thing today. Instead, leading us into our final few days of this industry study, I will summarize our collective thinking this far.
As you may recall, Brian and I agree that we like Wrigley best when valuation is not an issue. We also agree that PepsiCo is a big favorite, although for different reasons than Wrigley. Perhaps unbelievably to some Fools, we both shrugged Coca-Cola down to third place. This business is picked apart religiously and the opportunities at Coca-Cola are well known and likely priced into the stock. Coca-Cola is in an enviable position and it will almost certainly guarantee the long-term investor preservation of capital alongside capital appreciation above that of a long-term bond (as long as interest rates don't soar), but can Coca-Cola crush, demolish, and destroy the S&P 500?
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, it is impossible to turn the clock back to 1989 and hit "repeat." Given the collaboration of events that took place at Coca-Cola during the past decade, and comparing that to where the company is skating now, the stock is more likely to perform in-line with the market averages (probably modestly better) than smash it again -- at least in the intermediate term of three to five years. I'm not being so Wise as to make a prediction for other investors; I'm merely stating how I feel about the stock.
Onto player number two: PepsiCo. This pup is interesting. The company's recent "adios" to that annoying KFC guy, that grease-slinging Taco Bell dog, and that oil pit Pizza Hut puts Pepsi in a position to focus on just selling beverages and snacks. New key management and a virtually new business model bodes well for Pepsi's direction. The company has moved to divest itself of many of its bottling operations, too -- operations that lower the firm's return on capital.
The "new" PepsiCo is still very young, however, and therefore an investor assumes extra risk buying the stock now. Should it all pan out, Pepsi will likely pay off with a higher-than-average return over an extended period of time. Should PepsiCo's new business prove a little flat, though, the stock will continue to play second flute to Coca-Cola, meaning less respect and lower valuation multiples.
The risk-to-reward scenario is certainly worth estimating for PepsiCo either way. The problem right now is estimating accurately. We may need a few more quarters to see how operations are shaping up at the company in order to model how operations may appear in the long term.
Our third player, Wrigley, has a business that is at least as reliable as Coca-Cola, if not more so. As Brian points out, as long as interest rates are stable, Wrigley should command a high P/E (the most basic of measures) due to its consistent-as-a-long-term-bond, cash-in, cash-out business. If interest rates soar, Wrigley and Coca-Cola and many others would likely see their valuation multiples contract like a cheap paper plate holding five pounds of wet chili. That's neither here nor there, though, for us. It is Wrigley's business and the stock's value proposition relative to our other finalists that may put the gum leader on the tip of our "let's buy it" tongues.
Wrigley's business is stable enough, and we understand it well enough, that we feel comfortable projecting future results in a model. This is where we're headed. We want to dig deeper into the stable-as-a-Buddhist Wrigley business and project potential outcomes. At the same time, we want to get to know PepsiCo better as well. Of course, giant old Coca-Cola is always looming somewhere behind us, but right now that big red guy would need to jump around and wave its arms feverishly to get our focused attention.
Given our intense, athlete-like focus on Wrigley and PepsiCo, we may be able to make a decision before 2000. We're confident that all of our three finalists stand to be long-term winners, so maybe we can elbow our way up to the bar and put our hard-earned money down sooner rather than later. Yes, that's the ticket. Let's see what we can accomplish before we end this pathetic millennium, shall we?
Jeff Fischer (TMFFischer) is advisor at Motley Fool Pro and co-advisor at Motley Fool Options.
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