Growth Concerns Continue to Plague Nestle

By Dan Caplinger Markets Fool.com

No matter how big a company is, investors want to see strong growth. Global food giant Nestle (NASDAQOTH: NSRGY) is large enough that driving huge growth rates in revenue and earnings is difficult at best, but that doesn't make its shareholders any less ambitious in wanting the company to seek ways to tap into new markets and overcome challenges to future success. Coming into Thursday's release of its full-year 2016 results, Nestle investors wanted evidence that the food company could sustain modest growth rates. The report left many shareholders hungry for more.

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Let's take a closer look at Nestle to see what it said and what the future holds for the company.

Image source: Nestle.

Nestle looks for more growth opportunities

Nestle's full-year results didn't give investors everything that they had wanted to see. Sales of 89.5 billion Swiss francs were up just 0.8% from year-ago levels, and that was roughly half the growth rate that most of those following the stock had expected to see. Net income of 8.88 billion Swiss francs, however, was down about 6% from 2015, and the resulting adjusted earnings of 3.40 Swiss francs per share was slightly below the consensus forecast among investors.

Looking more closely at the numbers, Nestle continued to face the negative impact of a strong Swiss franc. The company said that foreign exchange cost it 1.6 percentage points of sales growth, and a considerable amount of the 8-percentage-point disparity between reported earnings per share and underlying constant-currency earnings came from foreign exchange considerations. A deferred tax adjustment also weighed on GAAP results. Organic sales growth was a healthier 3.2%, composed of pricing benefits of 0.8% and real internal growth of 2.4%.

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From a geographical perspective, Nestle enjoyed much better results in the emerging markets than in its developed market exposure. Emerging markets organic growth rose 5.3%, compared to just a 1.7% gain in the developed part of the world. The Americas segment saw the fastest growth, led by accelerating gains in North America and high-single-digit organic growth in Brazil stemming from large price increases. By contrast, the Europe, Middle East, and North Africa segment suffered from intense competitive conditions in Western Europe and low commodity prices that hurt Nestle's ability to sustain pricing power, but conditions in Russia and much of Eastern Europe were more favorable. Poor performance from the Yinlu brand in China hurt Nestle's performance in its Asia/Oceania/sub-Saharan Africa segment, but good growth elsewhere was encouraging.

New CEO Mark Schneider gave a simple summary of the situation at Nestle. "Our 2016 organic growth was at the high end of the industry," Schneider said, "but at the lower end of our expectations." The CEO also noted that strong profit margin figures helped make the most of a tough environment.

Can Nestle move forward?

Nestle also sees the need to take aggressive action to foster long-term growth. In Schneider's words, "In order to drive future profitability, we plan to increase restricting costs considerably in 2017." The company is still targeting mid-single-digit organic growth by 2020.

Yet once again, Nestle reined in expectations for more immediate growth in its top line. For 2017, the company's guidance included organic growth projections of just 2% to 4%. Nestle believes that underlying earnings should continue to increase, but that's a far cry from guaranteeing the 6% to 7% earnings growth that investors really want to see from the food giant this year.

Good news for Nestle came on the dividend front. The company said that it will propose a boost to 2.30 Swiss francs per share, which would work out to a rise just over 2%. Still, even the dividend increase reflects the more sluggish gains that Nestle has made in recent years.

Nestle shareholders weren't entirely pleased with the results, and the stock fell more than 1% in trading on Swiss stock markets following the announcement. What investors want to see is more growth in Nestle's sales. That's likely to come eventually, but long-term shareholders might have to be patient in order to give Nestle time for its restructuring efforts to take shape.

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Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Nestle. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.