Commodities & Metals

ConAgra Looking Forward to Low Commodities Prices (CAG, HNZ, KFT, TSN, SFD)

Food processor ConAgra Foods Inc. (NYSE: CAG) reported fourth quarter results this morning, beating the consensus EPS estimate by one penny at $0.51 and surpassing a revenue estimate of $3.38 billion by posting sales of $3.41 billion. The company’s results match up pretty closely with reported earnings from competitors H.J. Heinz Co. (NYSE: HNZ), Kraft Foods Inc. (NYSE: KFT), and Tyson Foods Inc. (NYSE: TSN), and are considerably better than the results reported last week by Smithfield Foods Inc. (NYSE: SFD).

In its forecast for fiscal year 2013, which starts with the current quarter, ConAgra said it expects 6%-8% growth over its “comparable base” EPS of $1.84. The company’s full-year EPS in 2012 totaled $1.12 on a fully diluted basis. The consensus estimate called for full-year EPS of $1.78.

ConAgra had a difficult first half of its 2012 fiscal year. Commodities prices rose sharply, forcing the company to raise prices. That, in turn, drove customers away. In today’s release, the CEO noted:

We will lap the pricing increases taken in fiscal 2012, which should benefit the year-over-year organic volume performance for our Consumer Foods segment in the second half of the fiscal year.

In other words, consumers will have gotten used to the new prices and will buy again. Even though the CEO didn’t mention it, ConAgra will also benefit from lower commodities prices, which currently rest at their lowest point in 19 months. Yesterday’s decision by the Fed not to start another round of quantitative easing did not encourage commodity traders who were also dismayed by the lower projections for US economic growth.

Now that customers are used to the higher prices and ConAgra’s commodity prices are set to fall, the company’s forecast for EPS growth looks a bit timid.

Shares of ConAgra are up about 3.3% in the first half-hour of trading this morning, at $25.40 in a 52-week range of $22.20-$27.34. Dividend investors should note that the company’s dividend yield is 3.8%, the highest of any of the food processors.

Paul Ausick