Coke rates a weak 'buy' as soda industry loses fizz

The Baltimore Sun

Can Coca-Cola Co. put two years of good stock performance together? What is the outlook for my shares?

- R.M., via the Internet

These are the times that try colas' souls.

The U.S. market for carbonated soft drinks declined 0.6 percent in 2006, with Coke's soft-drink volume down 1.2 percent, according to Beverage Digest.

Enter Diet Coke Plus. Fortified with niacin, vitamins B6 and B12, magnesium and zinc, it is the company's latest effort to focus on the trend toward healthier beverages.

Innovation is vital for the world's largest beverage company, which has been slow to realize market shifts and introduce captivating products. It must accelerate international growth to overcome North American weakness.

Shares of Coca-Cola (KO) are down 2 percent this year after a gain of 20 percent last year and a decline of 3 percent in 2005. Fourth-quarter net income fell 22 percent despite a gain in sales.

Coca-Cola's solid balance sheet and cash flow permit it to buy back shares and pay dividends. Although Warren E. Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway owns more than 8 percent of Coca-Cola shares, Buffett left its board last year.

The consensus rating on Coca-Cola stock is a weak "buy," according to Thomson Financial. That consists of four "strong buys," six "buys" and seven "holds."

After two less-than-successful chief executives, the top boss since 2004 has been E. Neville Isdell, who was brought out of retirement. He has been working to upgrade advertising efforts, increase managerial talent and boost morale.

Isdell's own morale should be just fine: While his base salary was $1.5 million last year, his total compensation was $32.3 million due to stock awards, option awards, pension and other benefits, according to the company's proxy statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The firm's earnings are expected to increase 8 percent this year and 9 percent in 2008. The estimated five-year annualized earnings gain is 8 percent. Each of those figures trail the average growth rates projected for the soft-drink beverage industry by about 1 percentage point.

Coca-Cola has 400 different brands in 200 countries, with about 1.3 billion beverage servings daily. Growth has been most dramatic in China and Russia, with Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and other markets slowing down. Accusations of high levels of pesticides in beverages hurt sales for both Coke and Pepsi in India.

The firm's products include carbonated Coke, Sprite and Fanta, plus noncarbonated Minute Maid, Dasani, Powerade, Godiva ready-to-drink coffees and Gold Peak premium iced teas.

The Northern Technology Fund was recommended to me. Is it a worthwhile tech fund?

- K.T., via the Internet

You might want to wait and watch a little while before making that move.

First of all, there has been change, with one of its longtime managers, George J. Gilbert, retiring from Northern Trust Investments in the middle of last year.

Not long before Gilbert left, Matthew Peron became a co-manager. He and co-manager Deborah Koch, who joined the fund in 2004, introduced a new quantitative screen that permits consideration of a wider universe of stocks.

Second, the fund is not cheap. Its annual expense ratio is 1.25 percent, which is above the median level for specialty stock funds.

Third, even though it is too early to make a final judgment, initial results from the changes haven't been all that impressive.

The $148 million Northern Technology Fund (NTCHX) is flat during the past 12 months to rank below the midpoint of all technology funds. Its three-year annualized return of 3 percent places it in the lowest one-fourth of its peers.

"We aren't recommending it because the new managers don't have a long track record at this fund or elsewhere and expenses are on the high side," said Reginald Laing, analyst with Morningstar Inc. in Chicago.

"Part of the reason that the managers implemented the quantitative screen was to invest in some smaller-cap stocks, but this might not be an opportune time since small caps have done so well for so long."

Make sure holdings in Northern Technology don't overlap with tech holdings in more diversified growth funds already in your personal portfolio, Laing said. To its credit, this fund does have lower portfolio turnover than most tech funds, which means lower trading costs and higher tax efficiency. It also is serious about considering the valuations of the stocks it buys.

Northern Technology has nearly half of its assets in technology hardware and almost a third of its assets in software, with industrial materials, health care and business services making up the remainder.

Largest holdings are Hewlett-Packard Co., Nokia Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., Cadence Design Systems Inc., International Business Machines Corp., Lam Research Corp., Oracle Corp., Symantec Corp. and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. This "no-load" fund requires a $2,500 minimum initial investment.

Andrew Leckey writes for Tribune Media Services.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad