General Mills view hurt by taxes, expenses

Wed Jun 27, 2012 2:37pm EDT

(Reuters) - General Mills Inc (GIS.N) forecast full-year earnings below Wall Street estimates as it boosts investment in emerging markets and its North American Yoplait yogurt business.

Shares of General Mills, which also makes Progresso soups and Cheerios cereal, were down nearly 2 percent in afternoon trading, as the weaker near-term forecast overshadowed a slight profit beat in the just-ended fiscal fourth quarter.

General Mills forecast earnings of $2.65 per share for fiscal 2013, which started on May 28. The forecast includes hits of 8 cents per share from a higher pension expense and tax rate and 2 to 3 cents from its anticipated acquisition of Brazilian food maker Yoki Alimentos.

Analysts on average were expecting $2.75 per share, excluding items, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

JP Morgan analyst Ken Goldman said the forecast implied only 3.7 percent earnings growth, which he said was low, even in the current low-growth packaged food environment.

"Though we think the buy-side's forecast was below the sell-side's, we are not sure investors' estimates were this low, and we see the $2.65 figure as disappointing," Goldman said.

On a conference call with analysts, General Mills executives said they remained committed to their previous longer-term targets. In 2010, the company said it was aiming to reach $18 billion in sales by 2015, with earnings per share growing at a high single-digit rate on average, and reaching $6.75 by 2015.

For fiscal 2012, General Mills reported sales of $16.7 billion and earnings of $2.56 per share.

One key area of investment for General Mills this year is the North American yogurt business, where the recent popularity of Greek yogurt, especially the Chobani brand, is fueling growth among health-conscious consumers.

S&P Capital IQ lowered its opinion on General Mills shares to "Buy" from "Strong Buy" following the disappointing outlook.

"We like the long-term prospects for the cereal and yogurt categories, though we think General Mills has lagged in U.S. Greek yogurt," said S&P Capital IQ analyst Tom Graves.

General Mills said it will launch 35 new yogurt products in the United States in the first half of the fiscal year, including A 100-calorie Greek Yoplait yogurt, a Yoplait yogurt with six or fewer ingredients and new variations of its Liberte brand.

General Mills plans to increase marketing to support those brands, but on a global basis, the company's marketing budget as a percentage of sales will be roughly the same as this year.

"We're spending a very solid percentage of sales on marketing right now," Chief Executive Ken Powell said in an interview. "All of these new launches will have the right level of support."

Another area of investment is in emerging markets, particularly China, where the company is expanding its Haagen-Dazs ice cream shops.

Like many U.S. food makers, General Mills is expanding in faster-growing emerging markets as consumers in North America and Europe remain cautious amid lingering economic weakness.

PROFIT BEATS

General Mills' net income rose to $325.4 million, or 49 cents per share, in the fiscal fourth quarter, from $320.2 million, or 48 cents, a year earlier.

Excluding items, earnings were 60 cents per share. On that basis, analysts, on average, expected 59 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Net sales rose 12 percent to $4.07 billion, led by the recent acquisition of the international Yoplait business. Analysts expected $4.11 billion.

The company expects 2013 net sales to grow at a mid-single-digit percentage rate, with segment operating profit rising slightly faster than that.

It excludes one-time integration costs, commodity accounting adjustments and restructuring expenses.

The company expects commodity inflation of 2 percent to 3 percent this year, which is below its long term expectations and the inflation seen last year, which was the highest in decades.

General Mills shares fell 81 cents, or 2 percent, to $37.34 on the New York Stock Exchange.

(Reporting by Martinne Geller in New York; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Sofina Mirza-Reid and M.D. Golan)