The UK's top-rated supermarket puts in good results, but a crimp in future dividends.
The shock profit warning from FTSE 100 supermarket titan Tesco (LSE: TSCO) in January continues to preoccupy many investors.
Has US investment legend Warren Buffett got it right in buying more shares in the world's third-largest retailer? Or has UK master investor Neil Woodford made the correct call in selling his entire holding in the company?
Let's give Tesco a rest, at least for a minute, and turn the spotlight on one of its UK rivals, J Sainsbury (LSE: SBRY), which announced its full-year results this morning.
Sainsbury reported total sales up 6.8% to £24.5bn for the year ended 17 March, with like-for-like sales growth of 4.5% and new space -- 19 supermarkets, 28 extensions and 73 convenience stores -- contributing 2.3%.
Profit before tax came in at £799m, 3.4% down on 2010-11, as a profit of £83m on the sale and leaseback of mature stores was lower than last year. Underlying profit before tax was up 7.1% to £712m, and underlying basic earnings per share (eps) grew 6% to 28.1p.
The results were modestly ahead of analysts' consensus expectations, and a 6.6% hike in the dividend to 16.1p was above the forecast 15.7p. However, there was a sting in the tail with the dividend, more of which later.
Sainsbury's own-label ranges and its convenience store, online and non-food offers are all growing ahead of the wider market, and the group's market share has increased to 16.6%, which is the highest it's been in almost a decade.
Chief executive Justin King, said: "We are succeeding by understanding what our customers want," adding that Sainsbury's Brand Match promotion has engendered a high level of trust on pricing among shoppers. That may be seen as a pointed reference to Tesco's difficulties, which include losing touch with customers' needs and trust on pricing.
In 2012-13, Sainsbury plans to reduce core capital expenditure from last year's £1.2bn to a still-substantial £1bn, as it opens new stores in areas where it's under-represented, steps up the refurbishment of existing stores and invests to support future online growth.
While the wider economic situation remains uncertain, Sainsbury's chief exec is "confident that our clear strategy, market insight and strong values will enable us to make further progress both in our core food and non-food businesses, as well as new channels and services in the year ahead".
After Tesco's bombshell, and Wm Morrison (LSE: MRW) recently reporting a first decline in like-for-like sales since 2005, Sainsbury has become the most highly rated UK supermarket. Ahead of this morning's results, forecasts for 2012-13 were as follows:
| ||Share price||Forecast P/E||Forecast eps growth||Forecast dividend yield|
Sainsbury's shares are up nearly 3% at the time of writing, putting it on the FTSE 100 top risers board. The price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio is the highest in the sector, but it does have that high dividend yield that has been attracting income seekers.
However, as I mentioned earlier, there was a bit of a sting in the tail with Sainsbury's latest dividend announcement.
The final dividend of 11.6p (to be paid on 13 July, with an ex-dividend date of 16 May) gives 16.1p for the full year. The dividend is covered 1.75 times by earnings, which is in line with the company's existing policy of cover in the range of 1.5 to 1.75 times.
Sainsbury has now amended the dividend policy: "The Board plans to increase the dividend each year and now intends to build cover to two times over the medium term."
What does this mean for shareholders? Well, simply that future dividend growth will lag behind earnings growth until such time as eps is double the dividend.
In contrast, Tesco's policy continues to be to grow its dividend at the same rate as earnings, while Morrison is actually going the opposite way to Sainsbury – lowering its dividend cover – so increasing the dividend ahead of earnings growth.
Sainsbury's higher yield may still be attractive for immediate income, but medium-term dividend growth relative to its peers is less appealing under the new policy than it was under the old.
As the supermarkets' P/Es and yields suggest, this sector isn't exactly flavour of the month (or, indeed, of the past year), which means this may be a good time to invest.
Which is the best value of the three?
- Medium-yielding Tesco on the lowest P/E, but with minimal earnings growth for at least the immediate future;
- Higher-yielding Sainsbury, but on the highest P/E and dividend increases lagging forecast medium, single-digit earnings growth;
- Lower-yielding Morrison on a medium P/E, but with higher forecast dividend and earnings growth.
Supermarkets aren't on my own shopping list, and it looks a tough choice between them. If you think the sector is undervalued, perhaps spreading your bets across the companies would be one way to go.
He avoided techs in the dotcom bubble and banks in the credit boom. But just where is dividend expert Neil Woodford investing today? All is revealed in this free Motley Fool report -- "8 Shares Held By Britain's Super Investor".
Further investment opportunities:
> G A Chester does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares in Tesco.