Dancing the Pricing Power Can Can With Canners

This article was originally published at RealMoney on October 15, 2007.

Last month I showed how investors can generate investment ideas by using the Producer Price Index (PPI) report prepared monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The idea is that industries where prices are rising may contain companies where revenue will grow faster and/or margins will improve.

Of course, like any initial screen the PPI report is only a starting place. It is useful to generate ideas, but further research is needed to determine whether they are good ideas. This month, I do some of that further research.

The first industry I mentioned last month was fruit and vegetable canning. Year/year price increases for the industry have been well above average, and although they have come down a bit from a peak earlier this year the trend still appears to be upward and last month inflation ticked up to 5.5% from 5.3% in August.

Year/Year Price Increases for Fruit and Vegetable Canning Industry

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

As I noted last month, possible plays on this industry include packaging companies (can makers) such as Ball Corp. (BLL), Crown Holdings CCK - Annual Report) or Silgan (SLGN - Annual Report). Or you can go to the food processors such as Campbell Soup (CPB), Del Monte (DLM - Annual Report), Hain Celestial (HAIN) or H.J. Heinz (HNZ).

Let’s start with Ball. When Ball released second-quarter results, they said they would be increasing capital spending “related in part to 2008 capacity additions for Europe, where we are essentially sold out this year and next.” President and CEO R. David Hoover called the first six months of 2007 the best half-year in Ball Corporation’s 127-year history in terms of sales and earnings. The strong first half supports the initial PPI reading, and the continued strength in pricing power suggests more good news to come.

However, Crown Holdings noted in its earnings report that raw materials prices were also rising. Passing through cost increases benefits sales growth, but may not help profit margins. Crown may be more exposed than others in the industry, suggesting greater caution on the name and an eye on raw material costs if any investments are made.

Silgan also commented on raw material costs, but reports that the pass-through works on a lag. “Operating margin increased to 7.6 percent from 5.4 percent [due in part to] the lagged contractual pass through beginning in the latter part of 2006 of significant inflation in other manufacturing costs.” Silgan looks like a good bet, as the lag effect will mitigate the impact of future cost increases and also help margins even more the next time raw materials prices head south.                                                                    

Moving to the food processors, Campbell’s Soup said “Gross margin increased to 41.9 percent from 41.8 percent… primarily due to productivity gains and higher selling prices, partially offset by cost inflation.” Rising prices also contributed 2% of the 7% total sales growth for the year. With the stock not yet reflecting these results, investors may want to take a good look.

For Del Monte, however, the rising prices are hurting more than they are helping. “The Company now expects fiscal 2008 diluted EPS from continuing operations to be at the low end of its previous guidance of $0.70 to $0.74” due primarily to cost increases in excess of what it can pass through. Given the better apparent prospects from other names that passed the screen, it is hard to argue in favor of Del Monte.

No so for Hain, which reportedgross margin of 27.9% in the fourth quarter, compared to 26.5% in the prior year fourth quarter. Margin improvements achieved through productivity gains and price increases were offset by the challenges at Celestial Seasonings.” Hain has had a good year, though, suggesting that investors may have already picked up on the positive news.

Finally, Heinz increased its sales and earnings guidance, saying on the conference call that “We are seeing positive net pricing and productivity offset these cost headwinds.”

In conclusion, on further review the initial positive read from the PPI report seems to be confirmed in five out of seven cases. In a few of the cases (Ball, Silgan and Hain) the stock price has followed the pricing trends, which bode well for continued strong performance. For Campbell’s and Heinz, the stocks have been stuck in neutral and (pardon the pun) may be ready for one of Cramer’s “ketchup” plays.

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Topics: Ball Corp. (BLL), Campbell Soup (CPB), Containers and Packaging, Crown Holdings (CCK), Del Monte Foods (DLM), Food Processing, HJ Heinz (HNZ), Hain Celestial (HAIN), Silgan (SLGN) | RSS

One Comment on “Dancing the Pricing Power Can Can With Canners”

  1. [...] Silgan Beats, Raises Guidance on Strong Pricing The pricing strength indicated by the PPI report seems to have been validated by Silgan’s (SLGN – Annual Report) earnings report [...]

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