Feb 2, 2000 at 12:00AM
The Standard & Poor's Food Index was burnt by a 24% loss in 1999, and is already down another 15% to begin 2000. The reason for the slaughter? As our world and our lives become computerized, our need for food is being replaced by our love of technology. Well, at least as far as our investment dollars are concerned.
Supposedly, more and more dollars are chasing companies that sell technology products while food and beverage stocks are being hung out to dry. There simply isn't enough interest in food and beverage stocks, and selling investors are knocking the stocks down into a new range of lower valuation multiples. Investors aren't bypassing potato chip companies for computer chip companies without other reasons, too. Growth concerns plague food stocks because volume growth has been slow at companies like Campbell and Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO), marketing expenses continue to be high and will almost always need to be relatively high in order to succeed, and the existence of pricing power is increasingly debatable across most food and beverage niches.
These issues are not exactly new, however. They've existed in the industry for many years. Meanwhile, the food industry still possesses many industry-specific positives for investors. First, many food industry leaders achieve stable, steadily growing cash flow; second, food will always be a necessity (you can't eat computer chips); and third, the stocks are defensive in nature but not lacking genuine long-term sales growth the way many defensive industries, such as utilities, tend to. All these qualities will be touted by the stock market again, probably within a year or two, when the stocks rise back into favor. Buying food stocks now is simply making a contrarian investment, which is often a good thing to do.
So, why aren't we buying more Campbell Soup? The stock is making a new low and, believe it or not, we're down about 50% on our investment in the company. (And this is supposed to be low risk, especially compared to Intel (Nasdaq: INTC), on which we're up 100%?) We stopped buying Campbell in 1998, thankfully so far, because it instituted fees in its direct stock plan and because its business wasn't growing as was previously expected. Its business still hasn't come around as was hoped by many, including management and us here in Drip Port (namely, me). The future doesn't look much different yet.
Now, we're long-term investors and want to give the company an ample chance, and we also don't want to sell our position at a bargain price, but even so, we're likely to sell Campbell as soon as we find something we like much better.
If we can find a company we understand well, technology-related or not, that we believe can sustain double-digit growth for a long time, while we can only hope for 8% shareholder value growth from Campbell Soup for the next decade, we'd be foolish to keep even what little money we have in Campbell invested in the company. We want all of our money invested in ideas in which we believe. We don't want any money sitting around essentially rotting in bad ideas. That said, right now, Campbell Soup is trading at 14.8 times this year's earnings estimate and yields 3.0%. Selling when everyone else is selling is typically the wrong move. When we're ready to sell out of the position, for our own reasons alone, we will.
One area that interests me most as a long-term investor is online commerce -- although I certainly don't mean retailers that are getting squeezed on prices left and right. I mean commerce-hosting companies like VerticalNet (Nasdaq: VERT) or eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) that collect revenue by hosting transactions and not carrying inventory. Does more potential for growth exist here, or with a food giant over the next 18 years? There is decidedly more risk in the new companies. But if you have 18 years, risk is often what you want to seek. Smart risk, that is. Another interesting industry is wireless communications and fiber optics. Another difficult to value but promising industry is biotech and companies like Human Genome Sciences (Nasdaq: HGSI) and Millennium Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: MLNM).
Yeah, these are all names that you may not expect to hear of in a Drip Port, and we may never buy any of them, but it's worth considering as we stare down our 20-year goal. As Brian elegantly addressed a few weeks ago, dividend growth and investing in solid, established leaders can get you all of the results that you want. Many investors seem to forget that in this rip-roaring market. We're relying on this truth as Brian described. But, adding a smaller company to our fold, one with a great deal of potential alongside its risk, may be a very smart addition for the next 18 years.
So, food is out of favor, but we won't sell our stock in the industry because of that. We'll sell Campbell when we find something we like much better as we continue to seek a smart, balanced, and focused portfolio that we understand and that offers substantial growth potential in return for the risks that we inherently take by investing in stocks.
To close, Intel is reportedly buying a chip production plant from Rockwell International (NYSE: ROK) and investing $1.5 billion in a move to quickly increase its manufacturing capacity. That's computer chips, of course, not those delicious, salty chips that you eat. To discuss this column or ask questions, please visit the Drip Companies board linked below. Fool on!
Jeff Fischer (TMFFischer) is advisor at Motley Fool Pro and co-advisor at Motley Fool Options.
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