The Coca-Cola Co (NYSE:KO) continues to look like one of the most overvalued stocks in the market. Earnings are in decline, with the company guiding for a 1-3% drop in comparable EPS in 2017. Yet KO stock trades at some 24x that earnings guidance — roughly the same multiple as fast-growing Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB).
There simply seems to be a disconnect between the growth investors are pricing in, and the growth KO is showing and will be capable of driving. Consumer tastes are shifting, regulatory pressure is increasing, and sugary soda is falling out of favor.
Long-term, Coca-Cola sales seem likely to decline. Yet the market is pricing its stock as if it’s the same steady grower it’s been for most of its history.
It remains to be seen whether the Coca-Cola earnings report Wednesday morning changes the narrative surrounding KO stock. But it seems highly likely that at some point change will come.
The Numbers Could Be Dangerous
There’s reason to see KO stock being at some risk after the company’s earnings report on Wednesday. For one, the stock has gained a bit more than 10% just since mid-February. That’s a substantial move for a stock that has been pretty much range-bound over the past two-plus years. Certainly, it looks like expectations are rising heading into the report.
But major rival PepsiCo, Inc. (NYSE:PEP) saw its beverage division post a weak fiscal Q2. Given that market share barely, if ever, moves between the two companies, that could suggest volume weakness for Coca-Cola as well. And unlike Pepsi, Coke doesn’t have a non-beverage business to pick up the slack, as Frito-Lay did for PepsiCo last quarter.
And while expectations for KO earnings don’t sound particularly high, they do imply an acceleration from recent trends. Analysts are expecting revenue to fall about 16%. But the company, in its Q1 report, projected a 17%-18% headwind from acquisitions and other items, plus another 1%-2% impact from currency.
In other words, Street analysts are looking for organic growth near 3% year-over-year; in Q1 it was zero — even with pricing help. EPS consensus of 58 cents suggests a decline compared with earnings for Q2 2016. But it, too, suggests organic improvement — something KO similarly hasn’t consistently driven of late.
Longer-Term Concerns for Coca-Cola
Regardless of the exact Q2 numbers, the long-term concerns for Coca-Cola will persist. Growth in developed countries, in particular, has stalled out. KO stock has been the weakest of the three major US beverage makers, badly under performing both PEP and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. (NYSE:DPS) over the past five years.
That’s not to mention sparkling water maker National Beverage Corp. (NASDAQ:FIZZ), whose stock has more than doubled over the past year. Those gains have come in large part due to that company’s LaCroix water brand — which continues to take share from traditional soda products.
Coca-Cola has tried to improve itself. It continues to restructure its bottling operations (the major reason why revenue is projected to decline year-over-year). The company announced layoffs of 1,200 employees in a bid to cut costs after earnings disappointed in Q1. But those efforts aren’t enough to combat the core problem that demand is only going to go down.
A strong dollar admittedly has been a headwind, and recent currency rate shifts could help KO earnings. But the type of growth priced in at 24x EPS simply isn’t on the horizon — no matter what the dollar does. And that seems a significant problem for KO stock.
The Bottom Line on KO Stock
KO’s reputation as a steady, safe dividend payer is intact, despite its growth challenges; A single earnings report won’t change that fact.
But investors viewing Coca-Cola as a safe stock should be looking forward, not back. There are real concerns here. Soda taxes are proliferating in the U.S. and beyond (including Mexico). Tastes are shifting toward juice and bottled water and Coke brands simply aren’t nearly as strong in those categories. Those tastes, and those health concerns, are secular trends, not short-term blips.
There’s a price where KO stock is worth buying but $45 isn’t it. On their own, Coca-Cola earnings on Wednesday may not wake the market up to that fact. But if Coke continues to show zero or negative growth, the price of KO shares will come down eventually.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.