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Tummies Grumble For Food Buyout

FOOD companies are suddenly looking very tasty to the investment community - and may soon be the battleground for the first hostile takeover wars since the days of the late 1980s, when the United States was rocked by a series of leveraged buyouts and acquisitions.Several weeks ago Philip Morris Company boosted its bank credit line to $15 billion - enough for a sizeable takeover. And last week Borden Inc. named a new chief executive officer who says he will move quickly to complete a restructuring plan for the huge food conglomerate. One reason for Borden's haste: the company is viewed as a takeover candidate. In addition to Philip Morris, Unilever and Nestle, two giant European consumer companies, are believed to be considering new acquisitions. Perhaps the sudden interest in food companies is linked to the coming holiday season, when the smells of pumpkin pie and turkey once again fill many households - and consumers step up grocery purchases. But more likely it's linked to the torpid state of the US economy, says Jane Shickich, an analyst with Prudential Securities Inc. She says a weak economy invariably bolsters consumer food stocks, since people always have to eat. So far this year US food stocks have outperformed the broader market. Companies such as Philip Morris, Sara Lee Corporation, Campbell Soup Company, and Kellogg Company have seen the price of their stock rise 30 percent or better from the start of the year to August. The Standard & Poor's 500 index, by comparison, rose by about 17 percent during that period. There will not likely be a huge wave of takeovers, as happened in the late 1980s, Ms. Shickich says. "Any takeovers would be very selective." US companies such as Philip Morris would most likely want to find companies that have strong positions in Europe, to help offset any slowdown in the US market. And, she notes, there are many reasons for acquisition-minded companies to be particularly cautious at this time. One is that the stock of some target food companies is priced at a high level in relation to earnings and assets. Many food analysts here say that the two giants in the industry - Philip Morris and RJR Nabisco - represent good stock value. Both firms enjoy a strong share of various markets for consumer goods. However, top brands of many food companies have been hit hard by the recession. Consumers have been looking for low-cost products instead of the assured quality many expect from brand name goods. Thus, private-label products have been making inroads into grocery sales at the expense of the brand names. In addition to Borden, Heinz is often looked upon as a potential takeover candidate; but Shickich and John McMillin, another food analyst at Prudential, conclude that a Heinz takeover is somewhat unlikely, in part because Heinz is accelerating its capital spending plans. Beyond the issue of takeovers, the investment community has a favorable view of many food companies because of their strong market shares. Examples are the J. M. Smucker Company and Tootsie Roll Industries Inc., both of which are leaders in their respective areas, notes Kemper Securities Group Inc. And both companies continue to show powerful growth; Smucker has increased sales for 44 years and Tootsie Roll for 14 consecutive years. A final point: Were the leveraged buyouts of many of the food-related companies in the late 1980s "successful," in terms of adding to the "value" of the companies? A new report by Salomon Brothers suggests that some companies, such as RJR Nabisco, came out of the LBO phase quite nicely. Thus, three years ago the stock market valued RJR at around $17 billion; today the firm is valued at over $36 billion, with its debt down to $17 billion from $30 billion at the time of the takeover. "Sweet gains" by almost any measurement!

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