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Coca-Cola beats on earnings but the coronavirus is now wreaking havoc on the soda giant

Brian Sozzi
Editor-at-Large

Coca-Cola’s (KO) better than expected first quarter on Tuesday may not even matter to investors as business has fallen off a cliff in the second quarter at the hands of the coronavirus. And when that free-fall ends appears to be an educated guess at best given the soda giant’s outsized exposure to restaurants, sporting events and other away-from-home eating occasions.

“In March, as the coronavirus pandemic spread globally, countries meaningfully increased social distancing and shelter-in-place mandates. In markets around the world, the company subsequently saw significant changes in consumer purchase patterns, notably substantial declines in away-from-home channels. In at-home channels, the company witnessed early pantry loading in certain markets, followed by more normalized demand levels, along with a sharp increase in e-commerce,” Coca-Cola said in a statement.

Since the start of April, Coke said it has seen a 25% global volume decline. Coke thinks the impact to the business in the second quarter from coronavirus-related social distancing efforts will be “material.” Business trends are expected to improve in the second half of the year.

Coke shares rose slightly in pre-market trading as investors quickly hopped on sizable first quarter sales and earnings beats primarily fueled by strength earlier in the quarter.

Here is how Coca-Cola performed in the first quarter:

  • Net sales: $8.6 billion vs. estimates for $8.25 billion

  • Operating Profits: $2.45 billion vs. estimates for $2.25 billion

  • Diluted EPS: $0.51 vs. estimates for $0.44

  • Note: Coke yanked its full year 2020 guidance on March 20, blaming uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic. Previously, Coke expected for the full year: (1) 5% organic revenue growth; (2) 8% core operating income growth; (3) earnings of $2.25 a share, up 7% year over year. It did not provide new full year guidance on sales, operating income and earnings this morning.

The bottom line

A tale of two quarters for Coke. And in the end, a lot of confusion for investors.

The company clearly had momentum in its business in most parts of the globe before the worst of the coronavirus. Unit case volume grew 3% in the important North America market on the back of strength in water, sports drinks and juice. Operating income growth, excluding the impact of the strengthening dollar, outperformed revenue growth in three of four countries. Coke has proven to be strong on cost-cutting under CEO James Quincey, and that trend continued to play out in the quarter.

(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

These things should give investors some degree of confidence that Coke will be just fine longer term as it continues to innovate in its beverage portfolio and watches costs. The problem is, however, when that long-term algorithm returns in earnest is 100% up in the air because of the coronavirus. With 50% of Coke’s business tied to away-from-home consumption (more than most key rivals in the beverage business) and China’s recovery slow at best, it’s highly likely unfavorable second quarter trends persist into 2021. Moreover, the company’s commentary at that at-home pantry loading by consumers has leveled off is a red flag to near-term demand.

To that end, Deutsche Bank analysts warned ahead of earnings near-term disruption to Coke’s business is “likely material and acute, but ultimate transitory.” Whether the Street fully appreciates the near-term risk to profits remains unclear, too, seeing as 72% of the sell-side community rate the stock a Buy. Coke’s stock also trades at a one point premium to its five-year average price-to-earnings multiple.

An investor should expect to see analysts continue to mark down their 2020 EPS estimates on Coke. In turn the stock could easily continue to relatively lag the S&P 500 and rival PepsiCo (which has less reliance on away-from-home consumption and a strong snacks business). Over the past three months, Coke’s stock has dropped 18.3% — worse than the 15.3% decline for the S&P 500. PepsiCo’s (PEP) stock has only shed 2.6% during that span.

Brian Sozzi is an editor-at-large and co-anchor of The First Trade at Yahoo Finance. Follow Sozzi on Twitter @BrianSozzi and on LinkedIn.

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