Hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman is in a strong dispute against Warren Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger over Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) big position in Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO). Ackman has gone as far as saying that Coca-Cola has "caused enormous damage to society" and that the company "has probably done more to create obesity and diabetes on a global basis than any other company in the world."
There is certainly a lot to be said about Coca-Cola and the health consequences of soft drinks, but Ackman's argument does not sound very solid and coherent.
Is Bill Ackman retaliating?
Ackman's comments come in at a very particular time. Just a couple of weeks ago, Munger made a series of tough critiques against Valeant Pharmaceuticals (NYSE:BHC), a company in which Ackman's hedge fund owns a position.
Valeant Pharmaceuticals stock is down by more than 70% from its highs of the last year. The company has been accused by influential short-seller Citron Research of using its commercial relationship with mail-order pharmacy operator Philidor to artificially inflate sales via shady accounting maneuvers. Valeant Pharmaceuticals has denied any wrongdoings, but the company announced on Oct. 30 the closure of its commercial ties with Philidor.
In addition, the U.S. Senate has recently launched a bipartisan investigation into drug pricing, especially focused on Valeant Pharmaceuticals and its particular business model. Valeant is being accused of aggressively buying other drug companies and then raising the market price of those drugs. Even if this strategy is not necessarily illegal, moral and ethical considerations are still a big issue with this business model.
In an interview with Bloomberg Business, Munger said that Valeant's strategy is "deeply immoral," which obviously provides another blow against the company in its battle to improve its image and solve its public-relations problems.
The fact that Ackman had such strong opinions against Coca-Cola shortly after Munger said negative things against Valeant Pharmaceuticals can make it sound like a personal dispute as opposed to a objective and impartial statement from the hedge-fund manager.
Berkshire Hathaway owns 400 million shares of Coca-Cola, a position with a market value of nearly $16.7 billion at current prices. This makes Berkshire Hathaway the biggest institutional investor in Coca-Cola, with a stake of more than 9% of the company's capital. Not only that, but Warren Buffett is a big fan of Coca-Cola, both the drink and the business, so Berkshire Hathaway and Coca-Cola are deeply related.
Is Coca-Cola hurting society?
Too much sugar is bad for your health and Coca-Cola has lots of sugar, that's beyond discussion. On the other hand, something similar could be said about different kinds of high-calorie foods and alcoholic drinks. Not to mention tobacco, which is not only toxic but also highly addictive.
Coca-Cola does not sell only regular sodas such as brands Coca-Cola, Fanta, and Sprite. The company has a massive portfolio with 20 different brands producing $1 billion each in global revenue, including diet versions like Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Zero, as well as healthier alternatives like Minute Maid and Simply juices, and even water brands like Aquarius, Dasani, and BonAqua.
In fact, the latest three additions to Coca-Cola's billion-dollar brand club are Gold Peak tea, FUZE tea, and I LOHAS mineral water, which is sold in Japan. These three brands crossed the billion dollar threshold in 2014, so Coca-Cola is finding promising growth venues in healthy product categories.
Traditional soda consumption has been stagnant or even declining in the U.S. over the last decade, as most people are paying increasing attention to calories and other health considerations. Coca-Cola is adapting to changing consumer demand by offering more low-calories sodas as well as water, juice, tea, and sports drinks, among other choices.
Consumers are demanding healthier drinks, and Coca-Cola is competing against other companies in the market to satisfy that demand. Saying the company is hurting society only because Coca-Cola has too much sugar sounds like much of a stretch from Bill Ackman.