Global Consumer-Products Giant Fesses Up: ‘Really Tough out There’

What is it with these consumer-products companies that need to sell a lot of cheap stuff to a lot of consumers around the world? Over the last few days, one after the other reported what are more or less unvarnished quarterly revenue and earnings debacles.

At McDonald’s, global revenues fell 5% and net income plunged 30%. At Coca-Cola, international volume was up a measly 1%, but in the US, volume declined 1%. Revenues were down fractionally for the quarter and 2% year-to-date. Net income in the quarter dropped 14%. Revenues at third largest beer-giant Heineken, which brews its stuff in 70 countries, dropped 1.7%. People are scratching their heads: are consumers actually cutting back on beer? Other companies too have reported disappointing results.

On Thursday it was Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch giant maker of shampoos, deodorants, laundry detergents, ice cream… that warned in its quarterly report about what it looks like “out there,” not in the stock market, but in the real economy around the world.

“It is really tough out there,” said CFO Jean-Marc Huët. “We have been at pains to say that for a long period of time.” Consumers are in trouble and are cutting back across key markets, leaving the company with price pressures and crummy sales.

Revenues fell 2%. “Underlying sales,” which are adjusted for a variety of things, rose 2.1%, but it was the worst growth since Q4 of crisis-year 2009, and down from 3.8% in the prior quarter.

Unilever warned of a slowdown in all the right places, in the emerging markets, in Europe, and of stagnation in the US. Like other consumer-products companies, it complained about currency issues, political unrest, bleak economies, the wrong kind of weather, and other uncertainties that perplex consumers to no end and cause them to get stingy.

“We expect markets to remain tough…,” CEO Paul Polman said.

In the emerging markets overall, where nearly 60% of its revenues come from, underlying sales managed to increase 5.6%, down from 6.6% in the prior quarter, with Turkey, Indonesia, and the Philippines being particular bright spots. But Brazil is sliding into recession, Russia is slowing down as well, and China, oh my!

As China is entering its worst slowdown in many years, consumers are reacting by closing their wallets. Retailers and wholesalers are reacting to the newly prudent consumers by “de-stocking,” the company reported. The result was a “sharp slowdown.” Underlying sales plunged 20%!

Then there’s the problem in the developed markets: sales dropped 2.5%, while they were still growing fractionally in the prior quarter. In North America, sales inched up a barely visible 0.6%. And Europe – which had been fixed not long ago, based on the hype being propagated ceaselessly – has become unfixed again. Unilever bravely blamed “poor summer weather” across Europe for the lousy performance of its ice cream category. Whatever the reasons, sales dropped 4.3%.

“Europe is not around the corner by any means,” Huët admitted.

And after complaining about price pressures and outright “price deflation” in Europe – though overall prices went up, just not fast enough to doll up Unilever’s revenues – it then ironically reported the following about its entanglements in, well yes, price fixing allegations:

Unilever is involved in a number of ongoing investigations by national competition authorities. These proceedings and investigations are at various stages and concern a variety of product markets. Where appropriate, provisions are made and contingent liabilities disclosed in relation to such matters.

So how is Unilever grappling with these economic and weather-related issues? It’s introducing cheaper products, on the basis of shrinkflation. For example, it developed smaller ice cream cones that sell for €1 ($1.27) in Spain so that even newly impoverished, jobless, or underpaid Spaniards can buy one every now and then. CFO Huet explained it this way:

We’ve learned from the previous economic crises the importance of having such value brands in the portfolio that can capture some of the down-trading that inevitably happens when disposable income levels fall.

And that sums up the economic problems facing Unilever, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Heineken, and all the others: it’s an economic crisis for consumers who’re struggling with falling disposable incomes.

And then there’s the corporate response to all this: the requisite “savings program,” as Huët called it, “to apply all the levers to translate top line growth … into earnings per share.” Because that’s the only thing that matters.

So Unilever would cut expenses here and there, axe 1,400 people, and whittle down its exposure to pension costs, all of which will do wonders for the disposable incomes of those folks…. And that’s the vicious cycle of corporate cost cutting in response to strung-out consumers who’re cutting back because they’ve been hit with the consequences of corporate cost cutting.

In the US more than in most other countries, it all boils down to consumers because the economy is so dependent on them. Read… The High Price of Free Money: Now US Bankers Fear Financial, Social, or Political ‘Instability’

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