More evidence that sugar and white bread can damage one’s health. Associated British Foods has an odd business mix of sugar, baking, and cheap clothing. Historically, its reliable performance has allowed investors to look through that.
The latest interim results, though, will prompt another round of earnings forecast downgrades – an unwelcome trend this year. A UK advertising campaign for Kingsmill bread centred around Elvis – featuring loaves in the shape of his head, quiff included – left consumers yearning for rival brand Hovis. Kingsmill’s marketing has since been overhauled, but fixing a brand takes time and money.
It is unfortunate this happened at the same time that Europe’s transition to a new sugar regime is playing havoc with ABF’s traditional cash cow. ABF will undoubtedly come out of this a leader in a leaner European sugar industry. Just how long that will take, and how painful it will be in the meantime, though, is unclear.
Primark, the successful discount clothing store format, is ABF’s saving grace. It shook off the effects of a fire at one of its warehouses in the run-up to Christmas admirably. The Littlewoods acquisition is progressing smoothly. The moderate pace of refitting these stores is sensible – remember grocer Wm Morrison’s woes. But that means more upfront costs with a promise of jam tomorrow, albeit one that should be fulfilled. ABF’s medium-term potential should put a floor under its share price, which, at 16 times, trades at a slight discount to its food peers and in line with UK retailers on a 2006 price/earnings multiple. That said, investors in ABF are living in more interesting times than they have been used to. Taking another mouthful now should carry a health warning.
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