No Deals Brewing for Beermakers After $195 Billion Buying Spree

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Global brewers, after spending $195 billion on acquisitions in the last decade, may slow the pace of deals in 2012 as beermakers struggle to maintain profit growth amid rising costs and weaker demand in the U.S. and Europe.

The two biggest companies to emerge from the spree, Budweiser owner Anheuser-Busch InBev NV (ABI) and SABMiller Plc (SAB), are best positioned to profit with a presence spread over Africa, Asia and Latin America, while smaller rivals Carlsberg A/S (CARLA) and Heineken NV (HEIA) may suffer from their higher exposure to Europe.

Brewers will be “just getting through 2012, keeping their heads down, managing price and trying to keep input costs down,” Trevor Stirling, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein, said. “It’s going to be tough for everyone, and particularly Carlsberg and Heineken.”

More than $21 billion changed hands for beer assets in 2011, topped by SABMiller’s A$10.5 billion ($11 billion) takeover of Foster’s Group Ltd. That made it the busiest year since 2008, when InBev NV paid $52 billion for Anheuser-Busch Cos. As sales volume growth decelerates and the cost of making beer rises, companies including the integrated AB InBev, Heineken and Carlsberg may focus more on running their own businesses this year than buying others.

Carlsberg shares have dropped 25 percent in Copenhagen in the past year and Amsterdam-based Heineken has dropped 4 percent, compared to gains of 14 percent at SABMiller and 13 percent at AB InBev. Carlsberg said in November that it plans to eliminate as many as 150 jobs across Europe.

Reduced Forecasts
Heineken and Carlsberg both cut their forecasts last year due to tough conditions in Europe and Russia. Grain harvests have also been relatively poor in the area this year, according to Stirling, which could lead to sustained high costs in 2012 weighing on their margins.

The amount of beer sold may rise 3.1 percent from 2012 through 2016, slower than the 4.9 percent increase in the four years ended 2008, according to analysts at Nomura including Ian Shackleton. Commodity costs are higher, including malting barley, a key ingredient in beer, which has risen 65 percent since the futures contract started trading in May 2010.

“It’s unlikely that growth will return to historical high levels of 2005 to 2008,” Nomura wrote in a note. “The cost of business is set to rise.”

Beer Volume
Beer volume and revenue growth may be particularly limited in Europe and the U.S. as brewers compete for sales amid economic turmoil and high unemployment. SABMiller, the first brewer to post results for the three months through December, reported declining volumes in both regions, as every other unit grew. Carl Short, an analyst at S&P Capital IQ in London, said “recessionary conditions” may return to Europe this year.

Beermakers may have to rely on internal cost cutting as price increases may be limited. Carlsberg and Heineken may have a “really tough time managing the pricing mechanism,” said Anthony Bucalo, an analyst at Banco Santander.

Carlsberg, which exited or sold sites in Switzerland, Finland, Germany and Norway since 2009, may close more breweries and cut costs, according to Nomura analysts.

AB InBev should deliver $270 million of so-called synergies this fiscal year from the Anheuser-Busch acquisition, and Heineken will give details of a new cost-reduction plan when it reports full-year results Feb. 15.

Trading at Premium
Analysts at Nomura and UBS AG have reduced their outlooks on the beverage industry, which also includes spirits companies. The stocks “already command a significant premium to the market,” according to Nomura’s Shackleton.

Deals including Heineken’s purchase of Fomento Economico Mexicano SAB’s beer unit in 2010 and SAB’s takeover of Foster’s have previously helped brewers diversify into faster-growth regions away from the U.S. and Europe. With Brazil’s Schincariol Participacoes & Representacoes also off the market after Japan’s Kirin Holdings Co. swooped in last year, big acquisitions may be tough to find in 2012.

“There are fewer assets out there that move the needle,” said Anthony Bucalo, an analyst at Banco Santander. “We’re going into a period where companies are inward-focused.”

Carlsberg could make small acquisitions in Asia. The Danish brewer’s biggest deal in 2011 was buying 30 percent of China’s Chongqing Brewery Co. for about $31 million.

Any buyer with an eye on Corona brewer Grupo Modelo SAB, Groupe Castel and Turkey’s Anadolu Efes would have to wrangle with family ownership and existing joint ventures.

Expanding outside Europe and the U.S. isn’t necessarily a quick fix for brewers. SABMiller said Jan. 19 that Foster’s pro- forma sales slid 6 percent in the quarter ended Dec. 31, raising concern from some analysts that benefits from the acquisition could be harder to come by.

“Realistically, it’s probably not on anybody’s agenda” in 2012, Bucalo said. “This looks like kind of a low-drama year.”