The modest 2.1% gains in the consumer staples sector, which beats the 2.5% decline of the S&P 500 (SPX) index, doesn't tell the whole story of how well packaged food stocks like Post Holdings (POST) - Get Report (up 44% in 2015) and Mondelez International (MDLZ) - Get Report (up 21% in 2015) actually performed this year.
Although the group didn't duplicate its 2014 gains of almost 20%, packaged food stocks had significantly stronger headwinds entering 2015. Consumer spending has shifted and shoppers are demanding healthier food options. Plus, companies like ConAgra Foods (CAG) - Get Report (up 13% in 2015) and Campbell Soup (CPB) - Get Report (up 19% in 2015) did a stellar job not only executing on their objectives, but also finding ways to offset negative impact of the strong U.S. dollar devaluing their overseas sales.
Those headwinds haven't fully let up yet, either. The market has been suffering a "post-Fed hangover," as TheStreet's Jim Cramer, Portfolio Manager of the Action Alerts PLUS Charitable Trust Portfolio, put it in his weekly Action Alerts PLUS roundup, written with Research Director Jack Mohr. They've observed "a metaphorical investor hangover on the heels of pre- and post-Federal Reserve meeting euphoria." Cramer and Mohr added, "The initial excitement that fueled the pre- and post-FOMC meeting spike is tempered by the realization that nothing effectively changed -- practically every incremental action and commentary that emerged from the meeting fell firmly in line with marketwide consensus." So what are investors to do?
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First, take a look at the chart.
In the basket of stocks mentioned, only Kraft Heinz (KHC) - Get Report (down 3% in 2015) has underperformed the S&P 500 index so far this year. There are tons of reasons to point to as to why companies like Diamond Foods (DMND) (up 41% in 2015) and Whitewave Foods (WWAV) (up 11% in 2015) performed so well.
But it's tough to ignore the impact of the huge the drop in oil prices, which are still at historic lows.
With consumers saving more at the gas pump, they've had more money left over to shop for groceries. Likewise, the capital investors have taken out of struggling energy stocks and industrial companies were in part reallocated to safer investments in consumer staples like General Mills (GIS) - Get Report (up 7% in 2015), which has a strong 3.06% dividend yield.
Will these gains continue in 2016?
That remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: poor-performing food companies won't become sudden winners and 2015's top-performers must execute to support their stock prices. And in some cases, the stocks have quite lofty valuations.
Here are a couple of names to put on your 2016 watchlist.
J.M. Smucker (SJM) - Get Report (up 21% in 2015) could still outperform in 2016, despite its shares currently trading at near all-time highs. Known for various packaged food products, including Folgers Coffee, Smucker consistently finds ways to increase its profit margins, allowing the Ohio-based company to make more money even during periods of weak sales. And owing to its February acquisition of Big Heart Pet Brands, revenue -- which climbed 40% year over year in the most recent quarter -- won't be an issue heading into 2016.
What's more, Smucker's earnings are projected to accelerate in the years ahead. The company has absorbed Big Heart Pet Brands, and has also formed a partnership with Dunkin' Brands (DNKN) - Get Report . That now allows Smucker to produce Dunkin'-branded K-cup coffee pods to retail consumers. The coffee business accounts for over 40% of Smucker's second-quarter revenue.
With fiscal 2017 estimates of $6.40 a share, well above 2016 estimates of $5.75, it would seem the market expects better results in the quarters ahead too.
The company has begun to benefit from its price increases. It added some 220 basis points in adjusted gross margin in its fiscal third quarter.
Aside from its price increases, the margin growth was driven by productivity improvements in Hershey's supply chain, combined with various costs-saving initiatives.
With Hershey stock priced at just 19 times fiscal 2016 consensus estimates of $4.43 a share, there is tons of implied value. Expected 8% growth would mark an acceleration of more than four percentage points above 2015 levels. At around $88 a share, Hershey stock is below its average analyst 12-month price target of $94. And its 58.3-cent quarterly dividend, yielding 2.62% annually, will be an added bonus.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.