GIS value proposition is getting better every day

What tends to generate less buzz in market news and other media outlets than the attention that is focused on the Tech sector that has dominated most of the past year is another COVID-driven trend that I think is also very important and has a few different interesting layers to it. Stay-at-home orders, shuttered restaurants (which, a full year into the pandemic in the U.S., are still operating at only partial capacity, if they are operating at all) and broad retail closures naturally prompted consumers to stockpile food and household goods. Some analysts thought that would be a short-term trend; but new data, and an increasing number of economic forecasts are now predicting this trend will see quite a bit of “stickiness” – meaning that what may have initially been a natural reaction to extreme conditions is likely to constitute a long-term change in consumer behavior. 

The longer consumers have to rely on cooking and eating at home, for example, the more likely that behavior is to become ingrained – which is creates that stickiness about demand trends. That doesn’t mean we as consumers don’t, or won’t appreciate the opportunity to go out and enjoy the socialization associated with restaurants, theaters, and so on. Even so, I think food-at-home is something that will stick as a natural behavior for fiscally conservative families – and the longer the pandemic persists in 2021, the more young couples are going to continue to have that mindset enforced on their household budget.

Another interesting layer of the stay-at-home trend relates to pets. Pet food is a highly competitive segment of the Food Products industry, but something that analysts like to see as part of a diversified company portfolio. A secondary increase in demand in pet food is likely to see very healthy stickiness because of increased pet purchases and adoptions in 2020. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Being forced to stay at home, which earlier this year included having parents with young children begin schooling at home, means that the emotional support offered by a cuddly puppy or kitty becomes more compelling – especially if you do have kids. That means that the Food Products companies that have pet food and pet products as part of their business portfolio have a useful second leg to keep revenues healthy on a long-term basis.

For me, Consumer Staples have always made a lot of sense in these kinds of circumstances. While these kinds of stocks aren’t immune from market momentum, and can certainly turn lower with the rest of the market, they also typically display lower volatility characteristics than the most buzz-worthy stocks. General Mills, Inc. (GIS) is a stock that I’ve followed for quite some time, and even used on a few different occasions over the last couple of years in my value-based, income-oriented investments. Its usefulness as a defensive position was proven out in 2020, as the stock dropped only about -10% during the initial broad market push to bear market levels, but then pushed more than 22% above its pre-pandemic highs by the beginning of August. Broad market uncertainty has pushed the stock down from its 52-week high around $66 and into a modest, intermediate downward trend that has the stock appearing to consolidate right now at around $56, but still following a gradual downward trend from that high. With its strong fundamental profile, that actually only improves this stock’s value proposition, making this another stock in the Food Products industry that I think is worth paying attention to.

Fundamental and Value Profile

General Mills, Inc., is a manufacturer and marketer of branded consumer foods and pet food products sold through retail stores. The Company is a supplier of branded and unbranded consumer food products to the North American foodservice and commercial baking industries. It also provides pet food products through its subsidiary Blue Buffalo Pet Products Inc. The Company has four segments: U.S. Retail, International, Pet operating, and Convenience Stores and Foodservice. The Company offers a range of food products with a focus on categories, including ready-to-eat cereal; convenient meals, including meal kits, ethnic meals, pizza, soup, side dish mixes, frozen breakfast and frozen entrees; snacks, including grain, nutrition bars and frozen hot snacks; yogurt, and super-premium ice cream. The Company’s other product categories include baking mixes and ingredients, and refrigerated and frozen dough. It also provides food products for dogs and cats. GIS’s current market cap is $34.1 billion.

Earnings and Sales Growth: Over the last twelve months, earnings increased about 11.5%, while revenues improved 6.75%. In the last quarter, earnings were 6% higher, while sales increased by a little more than 8%. GIS operates with a healthy, improving margin profile; over the last twelve months, Net Income was 13.16% of Revenues, and strengthened in the last quarter to 14.59%.

Free Cash Flow: GIS’s free cash flow is healthy, at $3.1 billion, and translates to a Free Cash Flow Yield of 8.68%. This marks a decline from the quarter prior, when Free Cash Flow was $3.18 billion, but reflects the reality of increased costs related to health and safety measures along with increased reliance on external, third-party manufacturing resources to meet demand. For a more complete context, however consider that Free Cash Flow for GIS one year ago was $2.5 billion, which along with the company’s solid, improving margin profile, implies year-over-year profitability is increasing nicely.

Dividend Yield: GIS’s dividend is $2.04 per share, and translates to an annual yield of about 3.65% at the stock’s current price. It is also worth noting the company increased their dividend in 2020 – a rarity in the market last year – from $1.96 per share.

Debt to Equity: GIS has a debt/equity ratio of 1.24. This is a high number, but is pretty typical of stocks in the Food Products industry, and is indicative in part of the debt the company assumed to complete the acquisition of Blue Buffalo Pet Foods in 2018. Their balance sheet shows liquidity, which had weakened through most of 2019, is improving measurably; in the last quarter, cash and liquid assets were nearly $2.6 billion. This number was about $532.7 million at the beginning of 2019 and $626 million in February 2020 before the pandemic began. They also currently have $10.9 billion of long-term debt. The company’s margin profile indicates that they should have no problem servicing their debt.

Price/Book Ratio: there are a lot of ways to measure how much a stock should be worth; but I like to worth with a combination of Price/Book and Price/Cash Flow analysis. Together, these measurements provide a long-term target at $67.60 per share. That suggests GIS is undervalued by about 21% right now.

Technical Profile

Here’s a look at the stock’s latest technical chart.

Current Price Action/Trends and Pivots: This chart traces the stock’s movement over the last year. The red diagonal line marks the stock’s upward trend from a 52-week low at around $46.50 in March 2020 to its high point at the beginning of August 2020 a little above $66; it also provides the baseline for the Fibonacci retracement lines shown on the right side of the chart. In September, the stock dropped back from the mid-$60 range below the 38.2% retracement line, finding support at around $57 before bouncing and starting to move back above that line to find a new, lower high at around $63. The stock has extended the downward trend from that point, more recently dipping below the 50% retracement line at around $56.60. Current support could be anywhere between the stock’s current price and the 61.8% retracement line at about $54, with immediate resistance at around $56.50. A push above $56.50 should see near-term upside to the 38.2% retracement line at around $59, while a drop below $54.50 could see additional downside near to the stock’s 52-week low range between $50 and $49.

Near-term Keys: If you’re looking for a short-term, bullish trade, I think immediate upside in GIS could be limited given current market conditions and the stock’s current downward trend; however, if the stock does push strongly above current resistance, it could offer a useful signal to buy the stock or work with call options, with an eye on an exit target at around $59. A drop below support at $54.50, on the other hand, could offer a useful signal to consider shorting the stock or working with put options, with an eye on $50 as a bearish profit target. The stock’s value proposition is the most interesting element of its overall profile, which is attractive given its underlying fundamental strength. With a healthy dividend to boot, there is a strong argument to make for using the stock as a solid, long-term position.

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