Grab a stack of Oreos or a bowl full of JELL-O, Fools -- it's time to dig into Kraft Foods'
Rachael Ray or the Swedish Chef?
When I last wrote about Kraft, I highlighted how higher product prices had hurt sales volumes. As companies such as Kraft raise prices to compensate for higher raw material costs, consumers may switch to the less expensive store brands offered by the likes of Kroger
These volume stats reflect not only consumer behavior, but also the practices of retailers, who had been cutting their orders in 2008 -- mostly to conserve cash, and also in response to concerns that premium-brand products would not sell well in a recession.
Kraft also showed off some well-fed operating margins. As the company sheds less profitable product lines, the benefits are growing clear: Gross and operating income margins collectively climbed about 1.7%, once adjusted for last year's restructuring charges. On the conference call, management showed "Double Stuf" confidence in reaffirming 2009 earnings guidance of $1.88 per share. That assured tone compares favorably with the stance of consumer-staples giant Unilever PLC
But is Kraft's optimism realistic? Although management is open to possible 2009 price hikes, its financial outlook focuses on the positive effects of surpassing year-ago quarters, in which the company made price hikes and cut underperforming products. In other words, customers will have had a year to adjust to higher prices, and the company will have had a year to invest in building the equity of top-performing brands. Essentially, management plans to meet financial targets by selling more in general, and specifically selling more higher-margin products. However, given the ongoing recession, it does seem risky to base such estimates so heavily on brand strength.
Safe for your portfolio's pantry
In the end, I don't believe that any unexpected 2009 challenges will be severe. And while Kraft's projected 2009 earnings are essentially flat compared to 2008, it is notable that estimated annual earnings growth would be "double digit" without the negative effects of foreign currency. In that light, while the stock's P/E of 13 might not match the value of a box of mac n' cheese, it does look reasonably priced.
Other rib-sticking Foolishness:
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Costco Wholesale is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Costco Wholesale is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Kraft Foods and Unilever are Motley Fool Income Investor picks. The Fool owns shares of Costco Wholesale. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days.
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