The Cheapest Food and Beverage Stocks for 2012

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After a difficult 2011, many investors are eager to get to 2012 and start investing with a clean slate. The markets look like they'll close about flat for the year, providing just a little solace for those who sat through the late July and early August plunge that sent stocks spiraling.

Many are hoping the markets continue their strong end-of-the-year push and start 2012 off with a bang. If you are looking at the food, beverage, and tobacco sector to lead this charge, here are some of the most affordable stocks in this space going into next year.

Company Name

Market Cap (Millions)

P/E

Forward P/E

P/BV

Zhongpin (NAS: HOGS) $323.304.54.00.7
Constellation Brands (NYS: STZ) $4,202.706.810.41.6
Chiquita Brands (NYS: CQB) $383.107.28.40.5
Smithfield Foods$3,996.508.29.31.2
Archer-Daniels Midland (NYS: ADM) $19,411.508.99.21.1
Adecoagro S.A. (NYS: AGRO) $982.209.019.30.9

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

One of the things I love about food and beverage stocks is their stability. They tend to outperform the broad market during difficult times, and reward the patient investor with consistent returns over the long term.

That's just one of the reasons food and beverage titan Coca-Cola (NYS: KO) is held by investing legend Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway (NYS: BRK.B) . Companies in this sector frequently possess an "economic moat" or competitive advantage that virtually guarantees a dominant position. For food and beverage companies this can include distribution strengths, retailer relationships, or process expertise.

A few impressions
Looking at this list one major commonality jumps out at me. Almost all of the companies here are food processors, distributors, or both. Many of these companies got hit by high commodity costs in 2011. Depending on the trajectory of commodity costs in 2012, they could be a bargain today.

Dinged earnings, but resilient
Archer-Daniels Midland recently reported disappointing first-quarter, fiscal-2012 earnings. EPS fell 13%, a direct reflection of corn costs more than doubling for the period. To combat future difficulty passing on higher corn costs Archer-Daniels is contracting with many corn customers. The expectation is that the pricing gains will offset higher corn costs and ease margins in 2012.

Fortunately for Archer-Daniels they are one of the biggest fish in this pond. Smaller, regional competitors will have to manage the same spikes in commodity costs, but lack Archer-Daniels' bargaining power resulting from their strong international presence and operational scope. With their 16% stake in Wilmar International, the world's largest producer of palm oil, they are likely to benefit from an increase in demand for their oilseed operations as emerging markets and developed nations alike clamor for healthier, lower trans-fat oils.

While still sensitive to swinging commodity costs, Archer-Daniels has more staying power than the competition, and is well-positioned with oilseed production. If you believe the global demand for food will continue to rise, it could be a great long term play on the cheap.

Not all that glitters is gold
By contrast, I believe Constellation Brands is fairly priced at these levels. A P/E of 6.8 may seem like a bargain for the world's largest producer of anything. But unlike many other "world's largest" companies, Constellation's scope gives them little competitive advantage. The alcoholic beverage industry, particularly wine, is characterized by a sea of options, no switching costs, and little brand loyalty.

Constellation's emphasis on premium products could help margins, but the corresponding premium prices will likely be difficult to maintain with zero switching costs and low brand loyalty. Constellation has sought to offset its wine focus with its Grupo Modelo joint venture. The partnerships import of Corona is expected to produce respectable cash flow in the immediate future.

Lastly, the company is highly leveraged. They have chosen to grow through acquisitions in the past, and have taken on substantial debt in the process. It has been whittled down in recent quarters, but remains high.

A foolish glimpse at 2012
Food and beverage stocks can be a tricky game. It's a relatively stable and low-growth industry, but every now and then you can uncover a total blockbuster that crushes the market. I feel the same way about The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2012. While the stocks listed here may be beaten down due to low growth prospects, the top stock we've uncovered here has a growing presence in a booming economy. We've compiled a special free report for investors to uncover this company today. The report is free, but it won't be forever, so -- Click Here -- to access your copy today.

At the time this article was published Austin Smith does not own shares of any company mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chiquita Brands International and Coca-Cola.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Coca-Cola. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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