UPDATE 2-ConAgra cuts profit forecast on weak private label sales

Tue Feb 11, 2014 12:47pm EST

* Cuts FY adj earnings forecast to $2.22-$2.25/share from $2.34-$2.38

* Expects third-quarter adj. earnings of about $0.60/shr vs est $0.66

* Sees delay in closing of Ardent Mills joint venture

* Shares fall as much as 8 pct (Adds analysts, CEO comments, details, updates shares price)

By Siddharth Cavale

Feb 11 (Reuters) - ConAgra Foods Inc cut its full-year profit forecast for the second time, blaming weak sales in its private-label business and a steeper-than-expected fall in sales of its own brands such as Chef Boyardee pastas.

The company's shares fell 8 percent on Tuesday to their lowest in more than a year.

ConAgra became the top U.S. producer of private-label foods when it bought Ralcorp for $5 billion in January last year as recession-hit shoppers grew accustomed to cheaper store-branded products.

ConAgra cut its fiscal 2014 profit forecast in September as shoppers opted for lower-priced private labels over the company's branded foods.

The company said on Tuesday its own private-label business was taking longer-than-estimated to reach expected operating profit levels, forcing it to cut prices to stem a fall in sales volumes.

"The (forecast) revision again seems to reflect weakness in each and every part of CAG's business, including a longer-than-expected timeframe to integrate Ralcorp properly," Barclays analyst Andrew Lazar wrote in a note.

ConAgra blamed the higher prices that Ralcorp had been charging and the disruption caused by restructuring before the acquisition for the weaker-than-expected results at its private-label business.

"Our biggest issue is that the private brands operations are taking longer to fix than we thought," Chief Executive Gary Rodkin said on a conference call after forecasting a weaker-than-expected profit for the third quarter ending February.

Analysts, including Lazar, pointed that even though ConAgra spent more on advertising and promotions to beef up sales, the return on investment (ROI) did not rise proportionately.

"Because U.S. consumers are so cash-strapped today, we do not expect incremental promotional and/or advertising dollars from food companies to generate the same ROI they once did," JP Morgan analysts Ken Goldman said.

WEAK FORECAST

ConAgra said it expects a steeper fall in sales in the consumer foods business as weak sales of key brands such as Orville Redenbacher's and Healthy Choice offset a growth in sales of smaller brands.

Sales volumes at the business, which contributes about 60 percent to revenue, are expected to fall 3-4 percent in the second half of 2014. That is steeper than its prior forecast of 1-2 percent.

The company said it expects Ralcorp to contribute about 20 cents per share to full-year earnings, down from its prior estimate of 25 cents.

ConAgra cut its full-year adjusted earnings forecast to $2.22-$2.25 per share from $2.34-$2.38 per share. Analysts on average are expecting earnings of $2.34 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

The company forecast third-quarter adjusted earnings of about 60 cents per share, below the analysts average estimate of 66 cents per share.

The Omaha, Nebraska-based company also said its Ardent Mills joint venture would now close in the second quarter of 2014 instead of the first quarter, due to ongoing regulatory reviews.

The merger would join ConAgra with Horizon Milling LLC - a joint operation between Cargill Inc and CHS Inc that already is the largest flour miller in the United States.

The U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division was investigating the merger that would result in Ardent Mills controlling about a third of U.S. flour mill capacity.

Shares of ConAgra were down 6.8 percent at $28.93 in early afternoon trading. They earlier hit a low of $28.60. (Editing by Savio D'Souza)