Consumer defensive: Top-shelf picks for a cautious spending environment

As consumer spending slows, investors should focus on companies that enjoy strong brands or sustainable cost advantages.

Adam Fleck, CFA 7 July, 2015 | 5:00PM
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The consumer defensive sector trades at a median price/fair value of 1.01, which is slightly less overvalued than our overall coverage universe, which trades at a median price/fair value of 1.03. Investment opportunities remain, but many of the stocks we consider the most undervalued are seeing severe foreign currency headwinds from the strong U.S. dollar (including top pick  Nestlé NSRGY), threats to their growth from slowing international consumer spending (which has also plagued Nestlé) or fundamental business changes (such as  Procter & Gamble PG) that could continue to challenge these companies' revenue and earnings over the near term (albeit with the long run looking quite a bit rosier).

Overall, we remain cautious on global consumer spending, particularly in emerging and developing markets, and generally recommend focusing on companies in the sector with narrow or wide moats that enjoy strong brand-related intangible assets or sustainable cost advantages.

The consumer staples industry also continues to consolidate, most recently with the announced tie-up of  Kraft (KRFT) and Heinz. Similar to previous deals private equity partner 3G has struck, we expect a fair amount of brand pruning as a result of this combination, along with substantial improvement in business efficiency (similar to the success Heinz has already realized--its EBITDA margins soared to 26% in fiscal 2014 from 18% in mid-2013). Although we don't believe Kraft's shares offer a sizable margin of safety for investors, we'd point to other opportunities in the space with significant internal-improvement opportunities such as the previously mentioned Procter & Gamble and  Mondelez (MDLZ).

Beyond the consumer product manufacturers, we also see opportunity in some defensive retailers. In this space, we believe that a firm with a narrow economic moat should be able to charge material price premiums (it should exhibit pricing power) for comparable products or have the ability to drive more traffic and sell more products than its competitors (customer captivity). The latter case involving higher throughput tends to drive economies of scale based on cost advantage, which we view as more durable for retailers than pricing power alone. We assign wide moats to the small number of firms that have the strongest and potentially mutually reinforcing combinations of brand intangible assets and cost advantages, such as Wal-Mart, which we see as currently undervalued.

Finally, the tobacco industry is another in which we see a proliferation of wide economic moats. However, the emergence of e-cigarettes is one of the most controversial issues in the industry today and the single-most disruptive force since cigarettes were declared to be harmful to public health. Investors are concerned that e-cigs may threaten the competitive advantages and cash flows of the large tobacco manufacturers and accelerate the decline of cigarette volumes. That said, our analysis shows that not only are there significant risks to the current growth trajectory of e-cigs, but that only in the most bullish outcome for e-cig growth will they materially dent the cash flows and valuations of the big tobacco firms.

To reach this optimistic scenario, we believe that the products themselves will have to improve to better replicate the smoking ritual and that the regulatory and taxation environment will need to remain favourable, which we think is only likely should scientific evidence prove that e-cigs offer a reduced-risk method of consuming nicotine. As such, we are reiterating our wide economic moat ratings for global tobacco players  British American Tobacco (BATS),  Imperial Tobacco (ITYBY) and  Philip Morris International (PM). Given the limited impact we expect from e-cigs, we are also maintaining our fair value estimates for all three firms. We continue to regard Philip Morris International as our top pick of the group based on valuation and competitive positioning.

Top Consumer Defensive Sector Picks

Star Rating

Fair Value
Estimate

Economic
Moat

Fair Value
Uncertainty

Consider
Buying

Nestlé

$86

Wide

Low $68.80
Procter & Gamble

$90

Wide

Low $72.00
Philip Morris International

$92

Wide

Low $73.60
Data as of June 22, 2015. All figures are in U.S. dollars.

 Nestlé (NSRGY)
Although Nestlé operates as the 800-pound gorilla in the consumer products landscape, it isn't immune to significant competition from both global peers and local players in emerging markets, which has pressured the firm's top line lately. However, in our view, the breadth of Nestlé's product portfolio -- which spans the coffee, bottled water, ice cream, confectionery and pet-care aisles -- and its low-cost global sales and distribution network (the basis for our wide moat) combined with continued brand investments should ensure that its competitive edge doesn't waver. The shares look undervalued at current levels, and for investors wishing to gain broad exposure to the consumer staples industry, Nestlé may be an appropriate holding.

 Procter & Gamble (PG)
We contend that Procter & Gamble represents an attractive investment opportunity in the consumer products space. Like others in the industry, P&G has been challenged over the past several years by intense competitive pressures and muted consumer spending. However, we further surmise that lacklustre innovation and an attempt to overextend its geographic reach has had a more pronounced negative impact on P&G's financial performance and subsequently its share price. Despite this, recent investments behind new products, a more disciplined expansion plan and efforts to rightsize the brand mix while improving the efficiency of operations appear to be gaining traction. As such, we contend that P&G is poised to post accelerating top-line growth as well as improving profitability metrics over the next several years.

 Philip Morris International (PM)
Philip Morris International is our pick of the tobacco category both on business quality and valuation. We like the firm’s portfolio positioning, as it is in the premium segment where brand loyalty is strongest, and it possesses a first-mover advantage in next-generation heat-not-burn e-cigarettes. The stock has struggled over the last 12 months due to accelerated currency headwinds and some new challenges in Asia. However, with the bar set quite low for 2015, we think PM is poised for a better year, and we expect to see an improvement in growth in Indonesia, where price gaps to competitors have narrowed. Standardized packaging remains the greatest risk to PM, in our opinion, but generally, we regard the fundamentals of the global tobacco industry as being quite sound.

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Adam Fleck, CFA

Adam Fleck, CFA  Adam Fleck is the regional director of equity research for Australia and New Zealand at Morningstar.

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