Will 2018 Be Procter & Gamble's Best Year Yet?

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It's a safe bet that Procter & Gamble's (NYSE: PG) management team is happy to close the books on 2017. Sales have been sluggish, competition was fierce, and the company narrowly beat back an activist shareholder challenge that would have forced a major strategic shakeup.

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Weak global demand trends suggest 2018 will be another disappointing year for the business. However, there are also good reasons for investors to expect better news from P&G. Let's consider the prospects for a much improved 2018 for the consumer-products titan.

Running against the wind

The main challenge facing P&G today is a stubbornly depressed industry. In fact, executives described a "decelerating global market" in their first quarterly report of fiscal 2018. That drag helped push organic sales growth down to 1% from an already weak 2% in the prior quarter.

At least P&G isn't alone in this struggle. Rivals Unilever and Kimberly-Clark both announced declining sales volumes in their most recent reports, too.

The good news is that emerging markets are showing signs of a rebound, and that could help P&G, given its global sales base, as it aims for its second straight year of accelerating sales gains. Sure, the 2.5% organic growth that management is targeting is far from the double-digit spike investors enjoyed back in 2004. But it would still trounce the flat result that's expected from Kimberly-Clark while modestly trailing Unilever's 4%.

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It's raining cash

P&G is aiming to squeeze all the returns it can out of that sluggish growth. Like its rivals, it's focused on cutting costs right now. However, management is taking that strategy to the next level, having slashed over $10 billion from its expense infrastructure since 2013 while targeting an additional $10 billion of savings through 2019.

There are many benefits to this cost transformation strategy, but the two that could have the biggest impact on 2018's results are higher profitability and increased flexibility. On the profit front, P&G's 21% operating margin gives it room to invest more in growth initiatives, like research and development and e-commerce, while continuing to shower investors with over $12 billion in cash returns each year. A slimmer, more efficient business, meanwhile, should allow CEO David Taylor and his executive team to quickly respond to shifting consumer demand.

What to watch

That's why the key trend to watch in 2018 will be market share. After two years spent cutting costs and whittling down the product portfolio to only the most dominant franchises, including Tide, Pampers, and Gillette, P&G executives have now achieved the key pillars of their turnaround strategy. That plan has already delivered rising profitability and increased cash returns to shareholders. But it can't be considered a success until it helps reverse painful market share losses in categories such as shaving and beauty.

The foundation of its financial strategy, according to P&G's 10-K report, is organic sales growth that's "above market growth rates in the categories and geographies in which we compete." Fiscal 2017 was the third straight year in which the company came up short of that goal, as market share slipped in each of its five core product categories. Investors are likely to judge the management team mainly by how well P&G performs on this core metric in 2018.

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Demitrios Kalogeropoulos has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Unilever. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.