In a move that is sure to embolden owners of Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) and PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP), Warren Buffett gave both companies his full confidence in a recent interview with CNBC. Plagued by declining soft drink volume in the United States, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo now face potential business disruptions in Russia and other markets abroad. Despite these concerns, Buffett remains enthusiastic about both companies' prospects. This is great news for long term investors that have remained on the sidelines due to fears over long term consumption rates of soda. Foolish investors would be remiss if they didn't give these soft drink behemoths a closer look following Buffett's comments.
Buffett still likes the industry
On Monday, March 3, 2014 Buffett sat down with CNBC analyst Becky Quick for a wide-ranging discussion. When asked about Coca-Cola, Buffett admitted that the company is under a lot more pressure now than it was when he bought it in the late 1980s, but he reiterated his belief that the world population will drink more Coke in the future than it drinks today.
A large part of Buffett's original investment thesis was that per capita consumption of Coca-Cola would continue to increase. In 1992 the world drank about one-seventh as much Coca-Cola per capita as did Americans. Buffett saw no reason why the world would not drink more Coke in the years ahead. In 2012, worldwide per-capita consumption of Coca-Cola's beverages was double what it was in 1992 -- which vindicates Buffett's belief that the brand would continue to grow even when it appeared there was no more growth left to attain.
Fast-forward to 2014 and people are again questioning Coca-Cola's prospects. Buffett, again, is optimistic about an industry that is attracting a lot of pessimism. In the interview, Buffett acknowledged that the soda tax in Mexico would hurt Coca-Cola but he noted that diet soda volume has declined more than that of the sugary sodas, which suggests that consumers' negative views regarding the health of the products may be overblown.
Although Berkshire Hathaway does not own it, Buffett also had good things to say about PepsiCo. He told Quick:
I think that Frito Lay, it is an extremely good business, it's a better business than the soft drink business, but I think the soft drink business is a good business, too, and I don't see a need to split 'em up.
Buffett's praise of the business is no surprise; both the snacks business and beverage business earn double-digit returns on capital. However, the real news was that Buffett disapproves of activist investor Nelson Peltz's quest to break PepsiCo into two companies (snacks and beverages). In fact, a survey conducted by Bernstein Research discovered that 55% of institutional investors believe that PepsiCo should be broken up. However, only 63% of respondents were PepsiCo shareholders, so it is not known if Peltz could win a proxy contest.
Moreover, legendary value investor Don Yacktman, whose mutual fund owns a little over 2% of PepsiCo, has come out against the breakup plan as well. With Buffett and Yacktman both expressing disapproval of a spin-off -- and management standing firmly against it as well -- it seems less likely that PepsiCo will be split in two. If you can trust Buffett's judgment -- and history says that you usually can -- then keeping the company together benefits long-term shareholders.
Would own even during WWIII
As previously mentioned, Buffett's CNBC interview was wide-ranging. At one point, he was asked about possible investments in the event that World War III breaks out. Buffett basically gave the go ahead to buy Coca-Cola and PepsiCo if Russia decides it wants to take over the world:
If you tell me all of that is going to happen, I will still be buying the stock. You're going to invest your money in something over time. The one thing you could be quite sure of is if we went into some very major war, the value of money would go down. I mean, that's happened in virtually every war that I'm aware of. So the last thing you'd want to do is hold money during a war.
American businesses are going to be worth more money. Dollars are going to be worth less so that money won't buy you quite as much. But you're going to be a lot better off owning productive assets over the next 50 years than you will be owning pieces of paper.
In essence, Buffett says buy and hold great businesses -- no matter what the future may hold. While most investors focus on the recent past and what may be just around the corner, Buffett believes that buying and holding great businesses is the best investment you can make at any time. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are two Buffett-identified great businesses -- and all long-term investors should consider owning them.