Can Coca-Cola Keep Growing?

Coca-Cola (NYS: KO) is a $156 billion nonalcoholic-beverage kingpin that sold more than $46 billion worth of drinks around the world in 2011. As if it needs underscoring, that's huge. So when it comes to the future for Coca-Cola, is growth still possible?

If you tuned into Coke's fourth-quarter earnings release yesterday, you know that there was still growth to be had in the past year, at least. Comparable earnings per share -- which adjusts the tally mainly for oddball adjustments from its bottler acquisition -- increased 10% for the year to $3.84, while comparable fourth-quarter earnings also rose 10% to $0.79. That bottom line won praise from those concerned with Wall Street's quarterly beauty contest because it topped the average analyst estimate of $0.77.

The bigger picture
There's been no recession for Coke. In the chart below, you can see that earnings did dip in 2008, but when we consider the total earnings growth over the past five years, it's clear that the Coca-Cola juggernaut is one that's not easily knocked off course.


Source: S&P Capital IQ. 2010 earnings adjusted for gains from bottler acquisition.

If we break that total growth down to an average annual figure, we can say that Coke is still growing earnings at a clip of better than 11% per year. To deliver that kind of growth on a relatively consistent basis is no small matter no matter who you are, but it's even more impressive when you're a company the size of Coke.

But getting back to where we started: Can Coke continue growing?


Source: Company filings.

Will people in other countries ever consume as much Coke products per capita as Americans do? I wouldn't bet on it. That said, we can't ignore the fact that Coca-Cola still derives close to half of its total revenue from a region of the world that only constitutes around 8% of the total world population. To me, that suggests that there's still opportunity to grow the top line.

International growth in the fourth quarter underscored this point. North America volume was up 1% for the quarter, but volume was up 10% in China, 25% in South Korea, 11% in Thailand, and 20% in India.

Obviously the issue of international growth isn't something that Coke is alone in pursuing. Beverage archrival PepsiCo (NYS: PEP) is looking for growth in many of the same places, and just like in the long-contested North American battleground, Coke will have to do a good job convincing consumers in emerging markets that its beverages are tops.

At the same time, Coke is continuing to strive to become more efficient, and thereby more profitable. Coke just completed a productivity program that it says created more than $500 million in annualized savings. Right on that program's heels, the company is introducing a new initiative, "Productivity and Reinvestment" that's targeting $550 million to $650 million in annualized savings by 2015. Efforts like these mean that the company can create bottom-line growth apart from sales growth.

Meanwhile, the company hasn't been shy about deploying some of its ample cash flow to grow through acquisitions. Of note, in 2007 the company ponied up $4.2 billion to buy Vitaminwater maker Glaceau. More recently, the company took over the North American operations of bottler Coca-Cola Enterprises.

The easy answer to my question, then, is "yes," Coca-Cola can continue growing its profits. Does that mean you should rush out and buy shares? That's not quite as easy. The valuation on Coke's shares already reflects a high-quality company that will continue to notch strong growth going forward. Back in 2009, I rated the stock an outperformer in my Motley Fool CAPS portfolio and I plan to stick with that rating. That said, investors looking for the next multibagger stock are probably best off looking elsewhere.

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At the time thisarticle was published The Motley Fool owns shares of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in PepsiCo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.Fool contributor Matt Koppenheffer does not have a financial interest in any of the companies mentioned. You can check out what Matt is keeping an eye on by visiting his CAPS portfolio, or you can follow Matt on Twitter @KoppTheFool or Facebook. The Fool's disclosure policy prefers dividends over a sharp stick in the eye.

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