A remarkable string of advances in share prices of North American grain-based foods companies continued unabated in 2015. While modest compared with the averages of recent years, the Grain-Based Foods Share Index, calculated by Milling & Baking News, sister publication of World Grain, ended the year at a record 21225.54, up 4.3%.
It was the seventh straight year in which the GBF index posted a gain, though it was the smallest advance during this stretch that began in 2009. The 4% advance compared with gains of 17% in 2014, 23% in 2013, 16% in 2012, 8% in 2011, 9% in 2010 and 13% in 2009.
The GBF index advance stood in contrast with a 2.2% decline in the Dow Jones average of industrial shares and a 0.7% decline in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. The Nasdaq composite index was up 5.7%.
In addition to eclipsing the S&P 500 overall, the GBF index gain of 4.3% topped the 3.7% advance of the consumer staples sector within the S&P 500. The grain-based index outgained all but two of the S&P sectors — consumer discretionary, which was up 8.4% and health care, up 5.2%. Most of the S&P sectors, like the GBF index, posted single-digit gains or declines during the year. The only wide swings were energy, down 23.6% in 2015, and materials, down 10.4%. Six of the 10 S&P sectors lost ground over the course of last year.
Beneath the relatively modest overall change of the GBF Index in 2015 was considerable volatility among the individual stocks comprising the index. Of the 25 companies in the index throughout the year, only six posted annual percentage changes in the single digits (down from nine companies in 2014). Sixteen of the 25 companies scored gains during the year while eight sustained declines and one was essentially unchanged.
One company in the index declared a stock dividend during the year — shares of Starbucks Corp., Seattle, Washington, U.S., split two-for-one in April.
An addition to the GBF Index took place at mid-year with the listing of the Kraft Heinz Co., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Trading in Kraft Heinz opened July 6 at $71 per share. The company’s shares hit their 2015 peak that month at $81.20 and ended the year at $72.76.
MGP makes biggest gain
MGP Ingredients, Inc., Atchison, Kansas, U.S., led the GBF Index with the widest gain in 2015, 64%, marking the second consecutive year in which MGPI ranked first, coming on the heels of a 206% jump in 2014. Shares of MGPI surged nearly 20% in December alone, and the closing price for the year of $25.95 per share represented the highest closing price for the company since 2006, when the company’s share price surged briefly to a high of $36.08. In the intervening years, MGP Ingredients has been among the, if not the very most, volatile stocks in the GBF Index. A little more than three years after hitting the 2006 peak, the company’s shares hit a low of 50 cents. The December 2015 close represented a 5,000% recovery from the 2009 trough.
The stock price gain for MGP Ingredients during 2015 more than eclipsed the company’s earnings gains — net income was up 21% in the first nine months of the year (period ended Sept. 30) and sales were up 3.8%.
Shares of Mondelez International Inc., after rising a weak 1.6% in 2014, jumped 23% in 2015. The company’s stock price improved in connection with major moves aimed at reducing costs and by a $7-billion-plus gain from coffee business transactions and divestitures.
ConAgra Foods, Inc., Omaha, Nebraska, U.S., which ranked eighth in share price performance, reconfigured its business in 2015. ConAgra shares during the year were up 16%, following an 8% gain the year before. Setting the stage for changes at the company was a transition at ConAgra’s helm — in February 2015 Sean M. Connolly was named as the successor to Gary M. Rodkin as chief executive officer at ConAgra. Connolly was the former CEO of Hillshire Brands and a longtime executive of Sara Lee Corp. and Campbell Soup. Two months after taking charge, Connolly said the company is “open to any actionable pathway that maximizes value for our shareholders.” Actions announced early in his tenure included a decision to sell the ConAgra Private Brands business, move headquarters to Chicago, Illinois, U.S., and divide the company into two publicly traded businesses — Conagra Brands and Lamb Weston.
Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Illinois, U.S., ranked ninth among grain-based foods companies, rising 13% in 2015. A year earlier, the company’s shares gained 24%. In July, Ingredion acquired Kerr Concentrates, Inc., a producer of natural fruit and vegetable concentrates, purees and essences, for about $100 million. Four months earlier, Ingredion acquired Penford Corp., a supplier of specialty ingredients, including potato starch.
Ranking 11th among grain-based foods companies in 2015 was Flowers Foods, Inc., Thomasville, Georgia, U.S., also up 12%. The share price gain largely retraced a decline of 11% the year before. In 2013, Flowers shares leapt upward by 39%. For much of 2015, Flowers appeared poised to be among the top two or three performers among grain-based foods companies. At its 52-week high of $27.31 per share, recorded in October, Flowers’ share price was up 42% on a year-to-date basis. The company’s shares tumbled in November when management lowered earnings guidance for the year. Having made a number of dramatic acquisitions in recent years, including Lepage Bakeries and the bread baking business of Hostess Brands, Flowers made strategic acquisitions in 2015 in the organic foods market, buying Dave’s Killer Bread and then Alpine Valley Bread.
Of the seven companies in the grain-based index to sustain share price declines in 2015, five fell by at least 20%.
Seabaord falls 31%
Seaboard Corp., Merriam, Kansas, U.S., endured the largest decline during the year, falling by 31%. Closing at $2,894.74, the Seaboard share price was down $1,306 from Dec. 31, 2014. The drop nearly reversed the $1,402.98 advance posted by Seaboard shares in 2014, when the company’s stock rose 50%. The company’s earnings were under severe pressure in 2015. In the first nine months of the year (period ended Oct. 3), Seaboard earnings equaled $57.73 per share on the common stock, down 72% from $209.91 during the same period in 2014. In 2015, profits were under pressure in the company’s Pork, Commodity Trading and Milling and Sugar segments.
The second widest decline in 2015 was sustained by another company that enjoyed a share price jump the year before — Hain Celestial Group, Inc., Lake Success, New York, U.S. The 31% decline in Hain shares represented a major interruption of a pattern established in recent years — up 28% in 2014, 67% in 2013, 46% in 2012, 36% in 2011 and 59% in 2010. For most of 2015, Hain shares appeared poised for another 12-month gain but began spiraling downward in mid-September. Days earlier the company announced Stephen J. Smith, the company’s chief financial officer, was leaving the company. He was replaced by Pasquale (Pat) Conte. In November, Hain said North American sales were under pressure on a number of fronts, beginning with pressure in the natural channel.
“Unprofitable year-ago baby and nut butter club programs” the company exited and the effects of distributor and account shifts also played a role, the company said.
Archer Daniels Midland Co., Chicago, Illinois, U.S., sustained the third widest decline in 2015, slumping 30%. The steep drop followed an advance of 20% in 2014 and a 59% surge in 2013. While “very weak” industrial ethanol margins were a principal factor severely pressuring earnings in the company’s most recent quarter, other parts of the business struggled as well. Agricultural Services profits were halved in the third quarter, ended Sept. 30. Operating profit for Wild Flavors and Specialty Ingredients were up during the third quarter, but Wild sales were soft.
Bunge Ltd. shares slid 25% in 2015. The drop followed an 11% gain in 2014. In 2015, the Bunge stock price fell sharply in February after the White Plains, New York, U.S.-based company announced fourth-quarter financial results. The company’s profits came under pressure during the year, but fairly optimistic guidance was issued for 2015 and beyond.
Declining 24% in 2015 was the share price of Krispy Kreme Doughtnuts, Inc., Winston-Salem, North Carolina, U.S., following a gain of 2% in fiscal 2014. Krispy Kreme shares drifted lower fairly gradually over much of the year but then fell sharply in September when the company announced disappointing results for the second quarter ended Aug. 2. The company cited softness in the consumer packaged goods channel as less profitable door count and product mix combined with smaller-than-anticipated volume. The company also was experiencing a higher-than-anticipated return rate. While adjustments have been made to address the issue, the company said it expected softness to continue for a while.
After a modest advance of 1% in 2014, shares of Grupo Bimbo S.A.B. de C.V., Mexico City, Mexico, were very strong in 2015, up 12%. Year-to-date earnings of Grupo Bimbo were up 30% in the first three quarters of 2015, versus the same period the year before. Operating income of the U.S. business of Bimbo was up 58% in the third quarter.
Shares of George Weston Ltd., Toronto, Canada, closed 2015 with a gain of 8%, which compared with a gain of 29% in 2014. Third-quarter earnings at Weston were up sharply from the same period a year earlier, and a top company executive said the food business was performing in line with management expectations.