Coca-Cola's (NYSE:KO) stock price lagged the market by a considerable amount over the last year due to flagging carbonated soft drink, or CSD, sales. There may be an antidote to Coca-Cola's woes in the form of Monster Beverage (NASDAQ:MNST). As recently as 2012, Coca-Cola was in serious discussions to buy Monster in what would have been a huge, multibillion dollar acquisition that would put enormous pressure on PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP).
The deal eventually fell apart, but with Monster now trading near the same price as it did during the 2012 talks, the acquisition may gain new life.
A deal makes sense for both Coca-Cola and Monster
Coca-Cola has struggled to enter the energy-drink category. Its two most popular brands, Full Throttle and NOS, have yet to gain a significant presence in a market dominated by Monster and Red Bull. Monster and Red Bull are as dominant in the energy-drink market as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are in the CSD market; it will be difficult for any company to steal share from the market leaders.
While Coca-Cola could use a boost in the energy-drink category, Monster needs a boost in distribution. Monster relies on third-party distributors to get its products from the warehouse and into stores. Coca-Cola already has a global distribution system that distributes its beverages around the world; it could easily add Monster to its worldwide distribution network and add significant value by introducing the energy drink to markets that Monster could never reach on its own.
A deal would force PepsiCo's hand
Though Coca-Cola is struggling in the energy-drink space, PepsiCo is fairing even worse. PepsiCo's only major energy-drink brand, AMP Energy, has the fifth-largest market share in the category; it is squeezed between NOS and Full Throttle. But all three are quite a distance from the No. 3 brand, Rockstar, which is still further behind Red Bull and Monster.
Energy drinks have been gaining share in the CSD category for years. Of the top three CSD companies, only Dr Pepper Snapple Group has increased its market share in recent years; Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have both witnessed declines. John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest, says that energy drinks are driving growth in the CSD market and stealing market share from traditional CSDs. If energy drinks can gain even wider distribution, the market opportunity is huge. Some estimates put 2017 energy drink sales at $21.5 billion, up from $12.5 billion in 2012.
With Coca-Cola's overall sales coming in below $50 billion, acquiring Monster and achieving market share growth through wider distribution would have a meaningful impact on the top line. Assuming a $21.5 billion energy drink market in 2017, if Coca-Cola's energy drink share hits 40%, it will generate $8.6 billion in revenue -- about 18% of its current overall revenue. While increased energy drink distribution would cannibalize sales of Coca-Cola's soft drinks, it would lead to CSD market share gains overall by stealing share from PepsiCo as well.
If Cola-Cola acquires Monster, PepsiCo could be pressured into making a bid for Rockstar. Such an acquisition would upset PepsiCo's carefully planned product portfolio, but would be necessitated because of the market share boost Coca-Cola could give to Monster. Since PepsiCo already distributes Rockstar in the United States, it would make a better -- and less expensive -- fit than Red Bull. PepsiCo can do the same for Rockstar that Coca-Cola can do for Monster; namely, introduce it to markets that it could not otherwise reach.
What's holding things up?
From a pure business combination standpoint, the deal is a no-brainer for both Coca-Cola and Monster. The price, however, could be a deal breaker. Monster's stock price quadrupled over the last five years and now trades for 36 times earnings. The company's market capitalization is slightly less than $11.5 billion. After factoring in a 30% acquisition premium, it would be a huge $15 billion acquisition.
However, there is reason to believe that the deal may go through this time. Coca-Cola was interested in 2012 when Monster traded for $11 billion -- not much lower than it trades for two years later. In three or four years, Monster could trade for several billion more, making it an acquisition that may be too big even for Coca-Cola to absorb easily.
Other than price, the only thing holding up the acquisition is the uncertainty regarding regulations governing energy drinks. Congress and the Food & Drug Administration are clamping down on the category, creating uncertainty for shareholders. However, if the new regulations turn out to be relatively benign, then Monster's stock price will surely zoom out of Coca-Cola's price range. If Coca-Cola wants to buy Monster, this is the time.
Betting on takeovers is a poor investment strategy, but investors should be prepared for them. If Coca-Cola buys Monster, it will immediately benefit the former's top-line results and will likely lead to long-term value creation. Investors who understand that ahead of time can quickly factor it into their assessment of Coca-Cola when the time comes.