Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) is earning its status as an ideal bet on the post-pandemic consumer rebound. The beverage titan said last week that sales and profits spiked as people traveled more and returned to restaurants, sporting events, and live music shows.
In the second-quarter conference call with Wall Street analysts, CEO James Quincey and his team cautioned investors about risks ahead, including new COVID-19 outbreaks that were sparking renewed retailing shutdowns. But demand trends are strong enough that Coke raised its outlook for growth, earnings, and cash flow.
Let's look at some key takeaways from that chat with investors.
1. It's right back to business
Coke eased a core worry on Wall Street that its business took a permanent hit from pandemic-related changes in consumer shopping behavior. The company lost market share for over a year as people shopped more at grocery stores than purchasing at on-premises channels like restaurants. But that trend reversed itself as COVID-19 vaccination rates soared in recent months.
Coke has gained back lost ground and even set new volume records in most geographies.
Its 18% volume spike and 46% earnings boost outpaced more-diversified peers like PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP) and shows how Coke should benefit disproportionately from a rebounding economy. "Our value share today is higher than the 2019 levels," Quincey said, "confirming that our effective brand-building and innovation along with our advanced revenue-growth management and market execution capabilities are working."
2. Amplified returns
Coca-Cola's earnings growth was amplified by a tilt toward higher-margin brands and serving sizes, plus increased prices across the portfolio. Those wins came on top of its already industry-leading profitability and an unusually weak year-ago period. Still, core earnings spiked 46% after accounting for shifts in currency exchange rates.
Management credited the direct link between consumer mobility and the Coke business for most of that success, although the past year's cost-cutting helped, too. "Our away-from-home volumes steadily improved as a percent of our business, driving strong price, mix, and margin acceleration across the enterprise." Quincey sad. Coke's operating income rose to 32% of sales from 30% last year.
3. Risks on the horizon
Coke warned that several of its markets are under new COVID pressure, and the overall business is highly sensitive to outbreaks as they affect consumer mobility. Costs are rising faster than expected, too, on everything from labor to aluminum.
Yet the strong first-half trends convinced executives to increase their 2021 outlook for sales growth, cash flow, and earnings. The forecasts imply Coke will be a much stronger business immediately following the pandemic than it was before COVID struck. The Dividend Aristocrat is already setting sales records, after all, even as a few markets are under intense social distancing restrictions.
That's why investors should see Coke as more than just a bet on the economic reopening. Sure, the beverage giant might struggle temporarily due to localized virus outbreaks or economic slowdowns. But its business is primed for faster overall growth and expanding profitability through late 2021 and beyond.