We at The Motley Fool don't hesitate to pit closely related companies against each other to determine which we view as the better stock. That's the case when we place Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A)(NYSE:BRK-B) in contention with Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO).
These two aren't just heavyweights in their respective industries -- they're also linked financially, which adds an interesting dimension to any contest between the two.
Coke has been in Berkshire's stock portfolio since 1988, and these days, it's the fourth-largest holding by market value. Berkshire's 400 million shares amount to about 9.4% of the company, making it Coke's largest shareholder.
Coke is built on a foundation of sugary beverages, which have fallen somewhat out of favor as consumers (at least in Western markets) grow increasingly health consciousness.
In response to this challenging environment, Coke has whittled its business down to more profitable activities. One among its notable moves in that effort was to spin off its low-margin bottling operations. Another was to expand its offerings in various non-soda beverage categories such as juice and energy drinks. Recently it even ponied up to acquire Costa, a chain of coffee shops.
Although Coke will forever be identified with its namesake sugar-rich beverage, it has done well by branching out. Organic revenue rose 6% on a year-over-year basis in the company's most recently reported quarter. Unit case volume was in positive territory, if not spectacularly, with 2% growth. Adjusted per-share net profit came in higher than analysts' expectations, up 14% to $0.58.
Analysts in general think the company can keep growing. Collectively, they're forecasting 6% EPS gains for fiscal 2019, on the back of revenue they foresee rising by 4%.
Last year included plenty of highs and lows for Berkshire Hathaway. The performance of the stocks in its portfolio was decidedly mixed. Notably, longtime Buffett favorite (and No. 3 holding) Wells Fargo lagged well behind its big banking peers, largely due to the fallout from a series of scandals. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) -- the No. 1 holding by market value -- had a bumpy year too; its stock price sank by almost 7%, a slightly worse result than was delivered by the S&P 500 index.
In fact, the only stock among Berkshire's top five holdings to land in positive territory from the beginning of 2018 to its end was... wait for it... Coke, with a 3% gain.
Berkshire's troubles with its major stock positions threatened to overshadow some positive developments for the company, particularly in the insurance field. Compared to 2017, 2018 was light on major disasters, so the company's insurance operations performed much better on a year-over-year basis.
The prospects for the upper end of Berkshire's portfolio today appear a bit brighter. Apple recently reported a quarter of record revenues and net profits, so hopefully the stock's struggles are largely behind it.
Meanwhile, credit card holdings American Express, Visa and Mastercard are front-line generals in the war on cash. And their leadership in that expanding marketplace should help keep their share prices on an upward march.
It's impossible to predict beyond the extremely near term when natural disasters will strike specifically. But if there aren't too many this year, Berkshire's insurance group should continue to be a lucrative profit center for the company.
Bet on Buffett
For me, the choice between these two stocks is easy: Berkshire Hathaway has so many sources of revenue and profit growth, not the least of which a stock portfolio that looks quite strong despite 2018's correction. Berkshire will have a cracking good year at some point -- most likely sooner rather than later, and its stock would certainly be my pick.
Coke has been doing many things right, and I believe it's executing skillfully on a sensible strategy for improvement. But at its core, the company is a seller of liquid candy, and that puts it out of sync with the trend of consumers' desires. Considering that, I wouldn't expect spectacular growth from Coke, no matter how well it's adjusting to the current reality.
Eric Volkman has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple, Berkshire Hathaway (B shares), and Mastercard. The Motley Fool owns shares of Visa and has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.