Grain-based foods shares up in 2014, outperforming major market indexes

by Josh Sosland
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KANSAS CITY — Marking the sixth straight year of advances in the sector, share prices of grain-based foods companies were up sharply in 2014. The Grain-Based Foods Share Index, calculated by Milling & Baking News, ended the year at a record 20342.89, up 17%.

While smaller than the 23% gain in 2013, grain-based shares in 2014 eclipsed advances of 16% in 2012, 8% in 2011, 9% in 2010 and 13% in 2009. From the end of 2008, the Grain-Based Foods Share Index has added 11,195 points, for a gain of 122%.

A rarity for food stocks in a bull market, the G.B.F. index outperformed each of the other major market indices in 2014. The 16.8% gain bested the Standard and Poor's 500 Index — up 11.4%; the Dow Jones average of industrial shares, up 7.5%; and the Nasdaq composite index, up 13.4%.

The Grain-Based Foods Share Index also outperformed global stock indexes. The 17% gain compared with an advance of 1.5% in the All Country World Index (ACWI). The MSCI Emerging Markets Index in 2014 was down 6% during the year.

Additionally, grain-based shares were strong when measured against most sectors of the S.&P.500, outperforming consumer discretionary companies, up 8%; staples, up 13%; energy, down 10%; industrials, up 8%; materials, up 5%; and telecommunications, down 2%. Grain-based shares lagged the health care sector, up 23%; information technology, up 18%; and utilities, up 24%.

Within the consumer staples sector of the S.&P. 500, the strongest groups were brewers, up 20%; distillers and vintners, up 33%; drug retail, up 34%; and food retail, up 24%. The Grain-Based Foods Share Index gain compared with packaged foods and meats companies, overall down 13%; and agricultural products, up 20%.

Of the 21 companies included in the Grain-Based Foods Share Index, shares of 16 scored gains in 2014 while 5 lost ground. Three non-U.S. companies not in the index but with a large presence in the U.S. baking market — Grupo Bimbo S.A.B. de C.V., George Weston Ltd. and Maple Leaf Foods — all were up in 2014.

MGP Ingredients, Inc., Atchison, Kas., had the widest gain among companies in the index — up 206%. The more than trebling in 2014 of the perennially volatile MGPI stock followed a gain of 52% in 2013 and a decline of 32% in 2012. The 52-week high of $17.04 represented a seven-year high for MGPI stock. The company weathered a bruising proxy battle through much of 2013, resulting in a change of management and in the roster of the company's board of directors. In July 2014, the company named Gus Griffin, a longtime executive of the beverage alcohol business, as its new chief executive officer.

Ranking second in gains among grain-based shares in 2014 was Seaboard Corp., Merriam, Kas., surging 50% in value to a close of $4,197.95. With its appreciation of more than $1,400 per share, Seaboard solidified its position as the second highest priced U.S. stock, lagging only Berkshire Hathaway, Inc. (which closed 2014 at $226,000 per share). In the first nine months of 2014, Seaboard earnings were $246,592,000, up 93% from the year before. Results included a one-time gain of $39 million. Even with the company's sharp share price gain, the company's shares were selling only at about 14 times earnings, versus more than 19 for the S.&P. 500.

With a 28% share gain in 2014, The Hain Celestial Group, Inc., Lake Success, N.Y., ranked third among gainers. The strong performance marked a fifth straight year of strong share price appreciation. In 2013, Hain shares jumped 67%, the second best performance that year. Gains in earlier years included 46% in 2012, 36% in 2011 and 59% in 2010. The company has been a top-three performer within the index for each of the years. Since the end of 2009, Hain shares have jumped a heady 555%. Reflecting the surging share price value, Hain's board in November declared a two-for-one stock split, a share dividend distributed in late December. Hain was the only company in the Grain-Based Foods Share Index to split its shares in 2014.

Hain has grown in part through a steady diet of acquisitions over many years, and grain-based foods factored prominently in the company's moves last year. In April, the company acquired Rudi's Organic Bakery, Inc., Boulder, Colo., the most prominent U.S. baker in the organic segment, for $61.3 million from Charterhouse Equity Partners, a private equity firm. Earlier in the year, Hain acquired Tilda Ltd., a 100% branded Basmati and specialty rice products company headquartered in Essex, U.K.

George Weston Ltd., Toronto, ranked fourth among gainers in 2014, rising 29% following a 10% gain in 2013. In the most recent quarter, the company's adjusted operating profits were up 24% from the same period in 2013. The company's Weston Foods division struggled through the year and reshuffled its leadership roster in the spring. Kevin McDonough, president of Interbake Foods, took on additional responsibilities as head of the North America frozen business, while Ed Hollick was named executive vice-president of operations. Jairo Senise, formerly president of Weston Foods and a former executive at Gruma, left the company.

The fifth largest share price gain in 2014 was posted by Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Ill., up 24%. The share price increase and ranking was up sharply from the 9% advance Ingredion shares posted in 2013, the smallest of any grain-based foods company in that year. After a difficult first quarter of 2014, Ingredion earnings in the second and third quarters improved significantly from the year before. Additionally, in October, Ingredion reached an agreement to acquire Penford Food Ingredients, Centennial, Colo., for approximately $340 million.

J&J Snack Foods Corp., Penn-sauken, N.J., ranked sixth among grain-based shares in 2014 with appreciation of 23%. The gain compared with 39% in 2013, when the company ranked only 11th within the index. Often among the top performers in the index in recent years, J&J shares were up 22% in 2012 and 8% in 2011. The company's financial performance was solid during the year. Net income in the year ended Sept. 27 was $71,814,000, up 12% from the year before. Sales were up 6%. It was the second straight year the company's share price climbed more sharply than its earnings, and the company's price-to-earnings ratio stood at a lofty 29. During the year J&J acquired Philly's Famous Water Ice, Inc., a Tampa, Fla.-based producer of Philly Swirl frozen novelty products.

Archer Daniels Midland Co., Chicago, posted the seventh widest share price gain in 2014, up 20%. The advance followed a gain of 59% in 2013, when ADM ranked third in the index. The year featured a number of major steps at ADM, including a move to Chicago from its longtime headquarters in Decatur, Ill. ADM during the year acquired Wild Flavors GmbH, Zug, Switzerland, in an all-cash transaction valued at approximately €2.3 billion ($3.1 billion). Also during the year, succession plans were announced for the company's top executive position. Juan R. Luciano was named to succeed Patricia Woertz as c.e.o. Ms. Woertz, who came to ADM in 2006 from Chevron, will remain chairman of the board and is expected to retire in May 2016. Mr. Luciano's appointment became effective Jan. 1. He joined ADM in 2011 from Dow Chemical Co., where he was president of Dow's Performance division.

Maple Leaf Foods Ltd., which largely exited the baking business in 2014, ranked eight h among grain-based foods shares during the year, with a gain of 16%. A year earlier, Maple Leaf shares were up 40%. In May, Grupo Bimbo, S.A.B. de C.V. on May 23 completed its acquisition of Canada Bread Co. Ltd. from Maple Leaf in a transaction valued at about C$1,830 million ($1,663 million). Canada Bread is one of the leading manufacturers and marketers of bakery products, including sliced bread, buns, bagels, English muffins and tortillas in Canada, frozen bread in North America, and specialty bakery goods in the United Kingdom. After steadily raising its stake in the baking company over the previous 15 years, Maple Leaf Foods in October 2013 began exploring strategic alternatives that included the potential sale of its 90% holding in Canada Bread. At the time Maple Leaf said it had reached the "final phase" of a seven-year project to enhance its protein business. With the sale of Canada Bread, Maple Leaf is principally focused on meat processing.

Following Maple Leaf in share price performance among companies with large grain-based holdings was PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y. PepsiCo shares were up 14% in 2014, versus a gain of 21% in 2013 and 4% in both 2012 and 2011. For some time, activist shareholders have been agitating for actions that would boost the value of PepsiCo shares, including a possible breakup of the company. PepsiCo executives have resisted the efforts. Nelson Peltz, a founding partner in the investment firm Trian Fund Management, which owns approximately $1.2 billion worth of PepsiCo, Inc. common stock, in a July interview on CNBC, was critical of PepsiCo management and said the battle was not yet over.

"The company is not being managed well," he said. "And the stock has moved from the $60s, where we first got in, to about $90 today. And that's not because of earnings. It's because of the fact that our message is resonating with the shareholders of Pepsi, and I urge you to watch this space, and you'll see what happens."

Shares of Bunge Ltd., White Plains, N.Y., were tenth among industry gainers, with a gain of 11% in 2014 versus 13% in 2013. During the first nine months of 2014, Bunge net income was $529 million, up sharply from $115 million in the same period in 2013. Total segment EBIT, meanwhile, was $809 million, down 13% from $933 million, and sales were $43,930 million, down 2% from $44,972 million. Results in the third quarter were hurt by a decline in crop prices and sluggish farmer selling in South America. It was the first full year for Soren Schroder as c.e.o. He succeeded Alberto Weisser in the role in June 2013.

While grain-based foods shares overall performed well, the same can't be said about companies with strong baking focuses. Grupo Bimbo S.A.B. de C.V., Mexico City, the largest baking company in the world, eked out a share price gain of only 1% in 2014, following an advance of 20% in 2013. Bimbo was active as a mergers and acquisitions player during the year. In addition to acquiring Canada Bread from Maple Leaf Foods, Bimbo in December announced plans to acquire another Canadian business, Saputo Bakery, in a transaction valued at just over $100 million.

Shares of Flowers Foods, Inc., Thomasville, Ga., declined 11% in 2014 after gaining 39% the year before. The nation's second largest baking company struggled during the year to meet its sales or earnings guidance and appeared surprised by the resurgence of the Hostess snack cake business, which resumed operations in the middle of 2013. During the year, Flowers continued to work to integrate Hostess bread baking assets it acquired in 2013. Additionally the company sold certain plants acquired in the Hostess transaction, including baking plants in Sacramento, Calif., and Biddeford, Maine.

Shares of the nation's two leading donut shop companies also underperformed in 2014. Shares of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Inc., Winston-Salem, N.C., eked out a 2% gain in 2014, negligible when measured against the 106% jump in 2013. Krispy Kreme shares had been among the strongest within the index over a number of years, chalking up gains of 47% in 2012, a decline of 6% in 2011 and a jump of 137% in 2010. In 2014, shares fell 15% on a single day — June 3 — after the company lowered its full-year outlook because of weather-related difficulties during its first quarter and higher-than-expected costs in connection with a new enterprise resource planning system and executive management succession. During the year, Tony Thompson was named as president and c.e.o. to succeed Jim Morgan.

Shares of Dunkin' Brands Group, Inc., Canton, Mass., peaked at just above $52 per share in March and declined fairly steadily afterward with a sharp fall at year end. The late decline followed updated guidance for 2015 that included a forecast of U.S. same-store sales growth of 1% to 3%, versus the company's long-term target of 2% to 4%. The cautionary guidance was attributed in December by Nigel Travis, the company's chairman and c.e.o., to "continued pressure on the consumer and decelerating sales of packaged coffee in our restaurants." Dunkin' shares in 2014 were down 12%, versus a 45% jump in 2013.

The widest decline among grain-based foods shares in 2014 was 19% by Bridgford Foods Corp., Anaheim, Calif. The share price tumble continued an up-and-down pattern for the frozen dough product company. In the nine months ended July 12, 2014, Bridgford sustained a loss of $3,429,000, versus net income of $1,814,000 during the first three quarters of fiscal 2013.

Also down fairly steeply during the year was Post Holdings, Inc., St. Louis, down 15%. Like Bridgford, the Post share price drop followed a strong performance in 2013, up 44% for Post. In October, Post completed the purchase of the PowerBar snack bar business from Nestle S.A. for $150 million. Also during the year, Post acquired Michael Foods, a producer and distributor of eggs, potatoes and dairy products for $2.45 billion.
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