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Global brewers: too much froth

Order a beer in Amsterdam and it is served with a big foamy head, something that can make drinkers feel they are the victim of the publican’s cost saving programme. Investors in Dutch brewer Heineken may feel the same way. At first read, its first-quarter results on Wednesday appeared sound. On a like-for-like basis, Heineken sold 5.5 per cent more beer than in the same quarter last year. Things were similar at rival SABMiller. On Tuesday, the London-listed brewer, revealed volume growth last quarter rose by 3 per cent.
Sounds great; but hold the backslapping. At Heineken, underlying revenues grew by only 3.6 per cent as its price and sales mix fell 2 per cent. At SABMiller, revenue per litre produced rose only 3 per cent. Much of this is attributable to pricing pressures in European economies with high unemployment. So to keep bottom line growth in double-digits, the only option is to continue ripping out costs – a strategy most brewers have employed with aplomb.
But costs can only be reduced so far before long-term effects crop up. Of particular concern is the potential effect on penetration into emerging markets if brewers attempt to subsidise their shaky western European business with a spendthrift attitude in fast-growing regions such as Africa, where costs are often higher because of poor infrastructure and the need to import machinery.
The large brewers trade at about 16 times their forward earnings, almost a 50 per cent premium to the S&P Euro 350 index. Clearly investors expect growth. But if revenues continue to underperform volumes, delivering on those expectations will be difficult. That could leave investors in the same position as Dutch drinkers; paying for a full glass but not quite receiving one.

21 Apr. 2011

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