NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The packaged food industry has been anything but appetizing this year. With names like Diamond Foods ( DMND), ConAgra ( CAG) and Campbell Soup Company ( CPB) all being hurt by weak volumes and compressing margins, I never bothered to give General Mills ( GIS) a second look. Not to mention, General Mills was already losing market share to Kellogg's ( K) in some very important categories.
Now, I've never discounted that General Mills, which has a strong history of innovation and "outside the box thinking," would overcome this rough patch. The problem, though, has been the stock, which is up close to 30% year to date, and (in my opinion) is now slightly above its fair-market value.
However, despite the sluggishness that has overtaken the entire sector, management has always maintained a consistent long-term growth plan. And following the release of the company's fiscal 2014 outlook, which was provided at the Morgan Stanley Global Consumer Conference two weeks ago, General Mills, expensive or not, has suddenly become more digestible.
[Read: Kellogg's Stuck in a Box]
As with rival Kellogg and to a lesser extent Post Holdings (POST), General Mills has always commanded the Street's respect -- particularly for the way it markets its products. With the company projecting stronger earnings growth for 2014, while also returning cash to shareholders, this suggests not only strong outperformance but, more important, margin expansion.
I believe going forward, the company's gross margin, as well as that of its rivals, will be the key differentiator in identifying value. In the most recent quarter, although revenue was up 8% year over year, which beat consensus estimates, the fact that earnings fell more than 16% highlighted struggles in operational efficiency, pricing pressure, or a combination of both.