Food stocks have been hit hard this year—and we contrarian dividend shoppers can no longer ignore the bargains on offer!
Investors’ overly negative take on these “essential” dividend plays makes sense because:
- They’re partly the result of low fertilizer prices, which can’t last because …
- The world needs more food: according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, global food demand will soar 70% by 2050, and …
- Food supply is tight, no thanks to droughts and Putin’s disastrous war (Russia and Ukraine are the world’s No. 3 and No. 10 wheat producers).
The result? Grocery bills drain our wallets faster than we can fill our carts!
These conditions are worrying, to be sure. But they also create opportunities for companies that process crops, help farmers boost their yields, and sell food through stores here in the US, where the economy is still strong.
That strength, by the way, is despite the Fed raising rates—and the cost of pretty well everything with them. (We’re betting Jay Powell doesn’t do his own grocery shopping.)
Food Stocks’ Lean Start to 2023 Gives Us Our “In”
Food Stocks 2023
Above we see the performance of three stocks from three different corners of the food business—fertilizer maker CF Industries Holdings (NYSE:CF), in blue; crop processor Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE:ADM), in purple; and packaged-food maker ConAgra Foods (NYSE:CAG), in orange.
All three are well-run companies, with growing payouts and price gains to match. But not all three are equally strong buys now. Let’s rattle through them in reverse order, from worst to first, and see which are most ripe (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) for buying.
1. ConAgra Brands (CAG)
ConAgra yields 3.6% and owns household-name food brands like Slim Jim, Duncan Hines, PAM, and Hunt’s—in other words, affordable staples. This gives CAG an edge as inflation pushes consumers to downgrade from pricier brands.
You can see that in CAG’s revenue, which jumped 8.6% in its fiscal second quarter, ended November 27. And as you can see below, the stock has nicely tracked the payout higher in the last decade:
- CAG’s “Dividend Magnet” Does Its Job
CAG Dividend Magnet
If you’ve been reading my columns on Contrarian Outlook for a while, you know about the “Dividend Magnet.” It’s the tendency for a company’s share price to track its dividend growth. You can see this in action with ConAgra’s payout (in purple above), which has gained 32% in the last decade, pacing its share price (in orange) higher.
There are three things that give us pause, though, and you can see both in the chart above.
The first is that I think you’ll agree, 32% dividend growth over a decade is pretty lame. Second, ConAgra has cut its payout in the past: a 20% reduction as part of its spinoff of Lamb Weston Holdings (NYSE:LW) in 2016. (Though it should be noted that LW’s dividend more than made up for the cut, for investors who held on to the stock. CAG did increase buybacks following the split, only to reverse that by issuing shares later: CAG’s share count is actually 14.4% in the last decade).
Third, you’ll see on the right side that the company’s dividend growth has been slowing. That’s because ConAgra pays 74% of its free cash flow as dividends, well up from 30% two years ago and north of the 50% “safety limit” we demand. Given the positive outlook for food companies, I have no doubt CAG can turn that around. But in the interim, I don’t expect any major dividend hikes.
2. Archer Daniels Midland (ADM)
ADM operates 400 crop-procurement facilities and 270 processing plants across the globe, turning crops into supplements and ingredients for food makers. It also produces animal feed and runs a commodity-trading business.
The stock is flashing two signals I look for when I seek out buys to recommend in my dividend-growth advisory:
- A payout whose growth is unlike what we’re seeing from ConAgra, and
- Smartly timed share buybacks.
Let’s take those two points at once because they’re tied together.
- ADM’s Dividend Drives Its Stock (With a Buyback Assist)
ADM Dividend Magnet
As you can see above, ADM’s Dividend Magnet is working perfectly, and its payout hikes are actually getting . That alone is more than enough to offset its ho-hum 2.2% yield. Meanwhile, the company’s buybacks (in blue) reduce its share count, boosting earnings per share, which, in turn, lifts the share price.
So why is ADM in the second spot? It comes back to the Dividend Magnet. As you can see above, the payout has gotten of ADM’s share-price gains (though not by much). We want a price that tracks, or even payout growth because a Dividend Magnet can also work in reverse—dragging down a share price that’s gotten ahead of the dividend.
3. CF Industries (CF)
Sitting in top spot is CF, a US fertilizer producer that dominates its market. CF sees fertilizer demand rising as early as this spring, as farmers look to boost their yields to take advantage of still-high crop prices. And that’s before we look at the need to replenish depleted global wheat stocks (no thanks to Putin).
Meantime, CF is one of the cheapest stocks out there, with a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of five. Single-digit P/Es are unheard of these days, especially for companies with CF’s growth potential.
And then there’s the massive amount of capital CF is handing shareholders. Its dividend recently “Rip Van Winkle.” After being parked at $0.30 per share quarterly since 2015, management popped it to $0.40—a 33% increase!
It’s also directing more cash into share buybacks. Over the past year, the company has repurchased nearly 10% of its shares. And in November 2022, management approved $3-billion buyback program that would cut the outstanding share count by a further 18%.
Put it all together and you’ve got a dividend just starting its ascent, along with a share price that’s only just begun to respond. That’s the opposite of the situation we have with ADM, and the gap below is a key driver of our upside:
- CF: Another Dividend Magnet Star in the Making
CF Dividend Magnet
Throw in the smartly timed buyback program (which feeds our dividend growth, as fewer shares outstanding leaves the company with fewer on which to pay out), and you get a hearty gain (and dividend) play that’s just starting to sprout.