For the fourth quarter, Campbell's sales were up 3.6% year over year to $1.45 billion, but net earnings dropped 54% to $44 million. This precipitous decline can be chalked up to a hefty charge related to a divestiture, as well as some other smaller charges. Taking these items into account, earnings from continuing operations actually inched up 3.7% to $84 million. Ultimately, though, a lower tax rate, rather than operational improvement, accounted for the gain, as the quarter's expense growth rate of 5.8% well outpaced the top-line increase.
Much of the quarter's flabbiness stems from Campbell's Baking and Snacking unit and its International Soup and Sauces division. Operating earnings in both divisions declined; however, some of these units' problems seem neither terrible nor likely to linger. The snacks area, for instance, was hit by expenses related to discontinued products, while the international side was hurt by reorganization costs.
More important may be the solid performance of Campbell's largest business unit, U.S. Soup, Sauces, and Beverages. Within this area, U.S. Soup sales rose a respectable 9%, with particularly heady 20% growth coming from the "ready-to-serve" soup category. Operating earnings for the whole business unit were equally praiseworthy, as they rose 9.6% to $114 million. The improvement was driven by higher pricing and productivity gains that outweighed cost increases and higher ad spending.
The performance in the U.S. Soup business is notable because the fiscal fourth quarter -- that is, late spring through mid-summer -- is hardly the peak of soup season. It seems consumers are warming up to Campbell's soups well in advance of the cold weather, so fall and winter soup sales could be more robust than in recent years.
Granted, Campbell faces some stiff competitors in General Mills'
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