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US food producers slip on blowback from merger talk

The shares of several competing food producers were under pressure on Friday after Kraft Heinz approached Unilever to propose a $143bn takeover.

Mondelez, Kellogg, General Mills and Campbell Soup are all seen as potential buyout targets for Kraft, said Christopher Growe, analyst at Stifel Nicolaus.

“While this potential transaction does not count out a future acquisition of these businesses, it certainly delays the potential at least a couple years,” he said.

In the case of Mondelez, speculation over a deal was a “key factor supporting multiples for the group at such a high level”, Mr Growe added.

Mondelez trades at 20.2 times expected earnings over the next 12 months, a premium to 17.6 times for the S&P 500, according to FactSet data.

The shares of Mondelez were down by as much as 4.4 per cent to $41.30 in early trading in New York but had recovered some ground to a fall of 1.6 per cent by midday. Kellogg, the maker of Cornflakes, slid 2.4 per cent to $72.91.

Pershing Square, the hedge fund run by Bill Ackman, has also bet that Mondelez would be an appetising takeover target. Pershing is the 10th-biggest shareholder of the group that makes Cadbury chocolates and Oreos cookies.

Nelson Peltz’s Trian Fund is also bullish on the stock and is the fifth-biggest owner of the company, basing its investment instead on the thesis that Mondelez could boost its bottom line by cutting costs.

General Mills, meanwhile, skidded by 3 per cent to $59.70 as investors mulled over the Kraft-Unilever deal talks and after the company issued a profit warning.

The group said that it expected its fiscal 2017 adjusted earnings per share to increase by 5-7 per cent on a constant currency basis, down from a previous guidance of a rise of 6-8 per cent. Organic net sales over the period were now expected to decline by 4 per cent from a previous range of 3-4 per cent.

General Mills said that the gloomier outlook was “driven largely by recent sales performance on US yoghurt and soup”.

Campbell Soup fell after the company famous for its canned soups disclosed weaker-than-expected quarterly revenues.

Sales slipped by 1 per cent in the three months through January 29, from the same period in the previous year, to $2.17bn. That was shy of Wall Street forecasts of $2.22bn.

“I am not satisfied with our sales performance this quarter,” said Denise Morrison, chief executive.

Ms Morrison said declines were “most prominent” in the Campbell Fresh division, which sells products such as fresh carrots and salad dressings.

However, she said that she was “encouraged by the positive momentum in our core US soup, simple meals and Pepperidge Farm snacks businesses”.

Net profits dropped to $101m from $265m. Adjusted earnings per share of 91 cents, which exclude certain items, exceeded estimates for 88 cents.

Campbell shares were down 6.3 per cent to $58.62.

In midday trading, the S&P 500 dropped by 0.2 per cent to 2,341.8, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was off by 0.3 per cent to 20,559.6 and the Nasdaq Composite was little changed at 5,814.2.

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