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ConAgra Earnings Highlight Food Industry Struggles

Paul Ausick

ConAgra Foods Inc. (CAG) reported first-quarter fiscal 2014 results before markets opened this morning. The food processor and packager posted quarterly adjusted diluted earnings per share (EPS) of $0.37 on revenues of $4.2 billion. In the same period a year ago, ConAgra reported EPS of $0.44 on revenue of $3.3 billion. First-quarter results also compare to the Thomson Reuters consensus estimates for EPS of $0.39 and $4.29 billion in revenue.

Last week the company lowered its full-year 2014 EPS guidance from $2.40 to a range of $2.34 to $2.38. ConAgra said that its weaker-than-expected first-quarter results led to the reduction. For the second quarter, the company expects EPS of around $0.55, well short of a consensus estimate of $0.64.

The company’s CEO said:

Our first-quarter Consumer Foods volumes were lower than planned due to category and customer challenges. We are revising our merchandising and promotion plans to improve our volume, and we have already begun additional SG&A cost management initiatives that should improve EPS performance as the fiscal year progresses. We still expect to post good EPS growth this fiscal year, and we are confident in our long-term EPS growth and cash flow outlook as the sizeable synergies from Ralcorp are achieved over the next few years.

ConAgra has had a tough six weeks since posting its 52-week high in early August. Other food companies, including J.M. Smucker Co. (SJM), Kraft Foods Group Inc. (KRFT) and General Mills Inc. (GIS), all peaked at the same time and have come down sharply from those highs. The reason for the drop is a little difficult to see.

Agricultural prices are low, and that should mean that food processors should get improved margins. But the evidence suggests that is not happening. General Mills met or beat estimates when it reported earnings on Wednesday, and Smucker beat as well and raised guidance. It looks like the good news has all been priced in and there will not be another bump until some additional good news comes along. Until then, just meeting expectations will not count for much and missing them will sting.

Shares of ConAgra are down about 1.2% in premarket trading this morning, at $31.68 in a 52-week range $26.87 to $37.28. Thomson Reuters had a consensus analyst price target of around $38.60 before today’s results were announced.