Coke Is Still the Real Thing

04/11/2011 2:41 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

George Putnam

Editor, The Turnaround Letter

After 13 years in the market wilderness, this global champion looks too cheap to be ignored, given excellent growth in sales, profits, and dividends, writes George Putnam III in The Turnaround Letter.

From its origins in an Atlanta pharmacy in 1886, Coca-Cola (KO) has grown into the world’s largest non-alcoholic beverage company. I believe that the market’s current lack of interest in Coke provides an opportunity to buy one of the world’s greatest consumer companies at a very attractive price.

Coke is a well run company with powerful brands and strong financials. So why do we consider it a turnaround situation?

Because the stock has gone nowhere for more than 13 years. The stock is trading 24% below its high in July 1998, notwithstanding the fact that since that time sales have nearly doubled, earnings per share have more than doubled, and dividends per share have nearly tripled:

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For several decades, Coca-Cola was considered one of the great growth stocks of all time. But it stumbled a bit in the late 1990s, when—horror of horrors—earnings actually declined slightly in 1998 and 1999.

Investors have never forgiven the company. We think that many people have given up too soon on Coke stock.

While it may never regain the growth of its glory years, Coke still has plenty of fizz in it. It still has some of the greatest global brands, 14 of which have topped $1 billion in annual sales.

And while sales growth may be slowing in the US and Western Europe, Coke has strong potential in other parts of the world.

Sparkling beverage (such as Coca-Cola, Sprite and Fanta) growth in the US has slowed to low single-digit percentages, but the company is still seeing double-digit growth for those products in many other important worldwide markets, such as Brazil, China, India, and Russia. Moreover, market penetration in all of those areas remains low, suggesting that the high growth rates can continue for many years.

In addition, Coke has been steadily expanding its lineup of still beverages, and those products have great potential in all markets, including the US.

Overall, sales grew 13% last year from the only slightly depressed levels of 2009. Recurring earnings rose by 14%, yet the stock trades at one of its lowest P/E ratios in recent memory.

Coke’s management seems very focused on delivering value to shareholders. It has increased the dividend on the stock for 49 consecutive years, and the yield is now a generous 2.8%. In addition, the company plans to spend between $2 billion and $2.5 billion on stock buybacks in 2011.

Buy Coca-Cola up to $80. [Shares traded below $68 Monday—Editor.]

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