Consumer goods giant Unilever (NYSE:UL) has a lot of what Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG) wants. Despite the weak selling environment that they both operate in, Unilever’s revenue is growing at a decent clip and it is gaining market share across all its main product categories. Sales volumes are particularly strong, which has given UL confidence to boost its dividend by 6% — compared to P&G’s tiny 1% hike this year.
P&G is aiming to post a strong end to its fiscal year when it reports Q4 results in early August, but investors will first hear from Unilever, which announces quarterly numbers before the market opens on July 21. Here’s a rundown of what to expect from this global consumer products rivalry.
Healthy sales growth
Unilever’s organic sales growth should clock in at 4% to 5%, or broadly consistent with its prior quarterly report. That result would put the company at nearly 5% organic gains through the first half of fiscal 2016, compared to 4% for the prior full fiscal year.
Moreover, Unilever’s growth is likely to see a healthy split between pricing and volume gains. Last quarter, volume actually outpaced pricing growth (2.6% vs. 2%) thanks to popular innovations in the Dove, Axe, Degree, and Hellman’s brands.
In contrast, Procter & Gamble’s organic growth pace is running closer to 2%, a slight slowdown from the prior year. Despite some bright spots in the portfolio such as Tide and Pampers, overall growth is coming entirely through higher prices. If these trends continue into this quarter, it’s likely that Unilever expanded its market share while P&G’s ticked lower.
Profit and cost cuts
Both companies are aggressively cutting costs so they can align their businesses with slower global demand growth. For Unilever, that means slicing an additional 1 billion euros out of its expense structure by 2018.
Profit margin is expected to tick higher this quarter to just below 15% on its way to slightly above that mark by the end of the fiscal year. Unilever’s margin for 2015 was 14%.
P&G has its rival beat on the cost-cutting front as management has already sliced billions of dollars out of its expense structure. Cost of sales, manufacturing expenses, even advertising overhead have all seen major cuts in the last few years. As a result, operating margin is growing quickly, although the reported figure is being held back by foreign currency swings. Even so, P&G last posted a 3-percentage-point increase in profitability as its operating margin jumped to nearly 18% of sales.
Unilever manages its business to produce high levels of free cash that it can distribute in the form of dividends and share repurchases. Last year cash flow surged to a new high, rising 54%. Its profits, meanwhile, fell slightly, although they provide a bigger cushion for dividend payments than P&G’s do. Unilever’s payout ratio currently sits at 73%, compared to 84% for P&G.
Even though its operating results are weaker, Procter & Gamble aims to deliver significantly more cash to shareholders over the next few years. Like Unilever, the company is raising funds through cost cuts. However, P&G has taken that strategy a big step further by selling off a substantial portion of its portfolio.
The company has whittled its products down to 65 key brands from 165 two years ago. Most of the cuts have been small, underperforming brands, but a few, like Duracell batteries and Coty beauty products, generated billions of dollars for the company. This process is a key reason why P&G can send shareholders $70 billion through 2019 even if operating results continue to bump along at near-zero growth.
That financial strength helps explain why the two stocks have returned about the same for investors over the last year. Yes, Unilever’s operating results leave its rival far behind. However, P&G’s profitability is improving at a faster clip while its portfolio transformation suggests market-beating growth could soon return to the business.
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