Most consumer staples are also called defensive companies, because their earnings and dividends do not decline by much during recessions. During economic recoveries however, their earnings and dividends tend to increase also. Because they are mostly mature and large companies, growth expectations are low, which usually leads to low valuations.
The thing that truly appeals to me in consumer staples includes the recurring nature of their revenues, which are generated from a wide number of products that customers love and buy regularly. Most consumer staples offer products with strong recognizable brands, for which customers are willing to pay a slight premium for. A customer, who is used to Gillette razorblades and shaving crème or foam for years, is not going to downgrade their experience merely in order to save a few dollars, but end up with cuts all over their faces. If you have used Colgate toothpaste for years, chances are very high that you would keep purchasing a tube every month or so. The nature of the products that consumer staple companies offer, satisfy basic human needs, which are satisfied only when the branded product is exhausted. Once it is all used up, the consumer needs to go ahead and purchase the product again, thus ensuring a repeatable stream of sales for the company for decades to come from each consumer it wins over.
Consumer staple companies also benefit from strong distribution networks and economies of scale in production. They have wide moats. The distribution networks help the products to be easily accessible to the everyday consumer, and increase the likelihood of a repeated sale. The economies of scale allow companies to allocate their costs over a larger pool of product, thus resulting in negligible per unit in additional cost. For example, a company like Procter & Gamble (PG) has a better staying power than an upstart consumer-staples company, because P&G can reach out tens of millions of consumers in the US through advertising, as it already generates billions in revenues and already has millions of customers buying its products. The global scale of manufacturing also makes it cheaper to make its products, relative to a smaller competitor.
Furthermore there are always plenty of opportunities for growth, driven either through acquisitions or international expansion. In addition, the general level of increase in populations over time also leads to an organic growth kicker for consumer staples.
The fact that consumer staple products are relatively inelastic, meaning that people use those in good times and bad, translates into a stable stream of recurring revenues for these companies. This translates into stable cash flow generation, that provides the fuel behind dividend payments, share buybacks and acquisitions.
If you think about it, as long as people use hygiene products such as toothpaste and shampoos, eat food like ice-cream, cookies, jelly and canned soup, chances are that consumer staple companies should do well over time. Even if you get a consumer staple company whose customer base grows by 1%/year, you can generate very decent returns over time. This is because the company would be able to pass on rising costs to consumers, deploy some excess cash flows to repurchase some stock on a regular basis, make strategic acquisitions, and make operations more efficient. If you add in a small starter yield of 2 – 3% today, chances are that these factors described previously could easily translate into a minimum very conservative annual earnings per share growth of 6% - 7% for decades.
Some of the huge macro trends that Consumer Staples are riding include the increasing prosperity in the emerging market world, where over a billion people would be lifted out of poverty and join the middle class within a couple decades. In addition, some demographics trends that no one is paying attention to includes the baby boom in the US, as well as the potential for a baby boom in China, as the one child per couple policy seems to be phased out by the government. Even the population ageing in developed countries such as Japan or those Western European ones could be a boom for consumer staples. As people age, they would want to do so in dignity, which could only translate into more sales for the likes of Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), Procter & Gamble (PG) etc.
The time to purchase these companies is when valuations are low, and avoid overpaying, as this would mean that the next decade of growth is already baked in the stock price. The perfect time to purchase could be when there is a temporary snafu at the company, such as the Tylenol scare for Johnson & Johnson in 1983 or the 2010 recalls again at Johnson & Johnson (JNJ). The financial crisis of 2007 – 2009, also created an environment where quality companies such as Procter & Gamble (PG), Clorox (CLX), Colgate-Palmolive (CL) and PepsiCo (PEP), to name a few, were on sale at some of the lowest valuations in years.
After you purchase those companies, your job is to sit patiently and collect those growing dividends. Only if prices become terribly overvalued, north of 30 times forward earnings should you consider thinking about trimming. So far, even if you held on through the 1972 Nifty Fifty bubble, or the 1999 – 2000 bubble, the rising earnings tide on those companies eventually bailed out the long-term investor. Just be mindful that if you sold a company that raises earnings and dividends like clockwork at 30 – 40 times earnings, chances are that any replacements you find might look cheaper, but wont offer the same level of quality.
Unfortunately, many consumer staples companies I like are overvalued. A few which are fairly valued today include:
Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), together with its subsidiaries, researches and develops, manufactures, and sells various products in the health care field worldwide. This dividend king has raised distributions for 53 years in a row. In the past decade, Johnson & Johnson has managed to boost dividends by 9.70%/year. The stock currently sells for 16.50 times forward earnings and yields 3%. Check my analysis of Johnson & Johnson for more information about the company.
Altria Group, Inc. (MO), through its subsidiaries, manufactures and sells cigarettes, smokeless products, and wine in the United States and internationally. This dividend champion has raised distributions for 45 years in a row. In the past decade, Altria has managed to boost dividends by 11.60%/year. The stock currently sells for 18.60 times forward earnings and yields 4.10%. Check my analysis of Altria information about the company.
Diageo plc (DEO) manufactures and distributes premium drinks such as Johnnie Walker, Crown Royal, Buchanan’s, J&B, Baileys, Smirnoff, Captain Morgan, Guinness, Shui Jing Fang, and Yenì Raki.. The company has raised dividends for 15 years in a row. In the past decade, the company has managed to boost dividends by 5.80%/year. Currently, the stock is selling for 20.20 times forward earnings and yields 3%. Check my analysis of Diageo for more details.
Full Disclosure: Long JNJ, CLX, PG, CL, PEP, MO, DEO,
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