Consumer Products

The Bullish and Bearish Case for Coca-Cola in 2015

With the bull market nearing its sixth year, the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose by 7.5% and the S&P 500 Index rose by 11.4% in 2014. Those gains are not inclusive of dividends, but Coca-Cola Co. (NYSE: KO) closed out 2014 at $42.22, for a gain of 5.3%, if you included its dividend adjustments. 24/7 Wall St. has undertaken a bullish and bearish case review of Coca-Cola to see what lies ahead for the company in 2015 and beyond.

The stock underperformed the broader indexes in 2014, and analysts generally see another lackluster year for 2015. That being said, analysts are not always right, and many investors look for the Dow laggards to see if they can be surprise winners in the year ahead. With a 2014 trading range of $36.89 to $45.00, it also has a consensus analyst price target of $44.06, which would imply upside of 4.4% this year. Then there is the dividend yield of 2.9% to consider. Coke has a market cap near $185 billion.

It is impossible to ignore PepsiCo Inc. (NYSE: PEP) when evaluating Coca-Cola. That is the first and foremost consideration any investor must take. Still, Coca-Cola as a company is entering 2015 in a much different position against Pepsi than in any recent year.

Two driving factors for Coca-Cola are the recent stakes taken in Keurig Green Mountain Inc. (NASDAQ: GMCR) and in Monster Beverage Corp. (NASDAQ: MNST). Moving beyond carbonated beverages and bottled water is key, and moving into coffee and energy drinks may be a differentiating factor for Coca-Cola.

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Coca-Cola is valued at just over 20 times expected 2015 earnings, more than a point higher than the forward price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of rival Pepsi. Coca-Cola entered 2014 worth just over 18 times expected forward earnings, versus about 17.5 for Pepsi. The current valuation is higher than the broader market, and that premium valuation creates a conundrum when you consider that Coca-Cola is expected to be dead for growth in 2014 and 2015. The most recent year that Coca-Cola managed to grow revenues was 2012, with a gain of 3% to $48 billion in sales.

Coca-Cola shares one other trait with PepsiCo in 2014. They both felt some pressure from activists. Warren Buffett was a controversial figure in this effort, but his stake of 400 million shares may allow Buffett to get away with doing what is best for him rather than what may or may not be best for everyone else.

When we ran our bullish and bearish analysis for 2014, we showed that analysts were expecting gains of 8.9% for Coca-Cola in 2014. That expectation turned up short, with a dividend-adjusted performance of 5.3% in 2014. Can Coke’s total expected upside with the dividend included of 7.2% come about in 2015?

Coca-Cola may seem not that different from Pepsi to many investors, despite Pepsi’s obvious snack business mix. The Keurig Green Mountain and Monster Beverage stakes may truly be game-changers at the start of the year for a simple Coke-Pepsi taste test for investors. Still, these are stakes rather than Coca-Cola having made outright acquisitions. Is Coca-Cola finally admitting that consumers are turning away from traditional soda-pop beverages and wasted calories?

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Investors may be wary that the $42.22 share price comes with such limited analyst upside to the $44.06 consensus target. Much of that 4.4% expected gain is due to Coca-Cola’s 2.9% dividend yield.

The lowest analyst price target measured by Thomson Reuters is $37.00, but the highest is all the way up at $53.00. If Coca-Cola shares were to magically rise to that highest analyst target, then the upside could be as much as 25%. That seems much rosier than common sense might dictate, but that is what makes a market.