Coca-Cola Issues Profit Warning; No Quick Solutions Seen

Coca-Cola Co. (KO), amid signs that is it losing market share to arch rival Pepsi (PEP), on Wednesday warned that profit would lag Wall Street expectations for the rest of the year because of weakness in key markets and said there was no quick fix for its problems.

The world's biggest soft drink maker reported unfavorable volume trends in North America as well as unusually wet, rainy weather that has slowed sales in Northern Europe. Business in Germany and France is especially weak.

"The solutions are complex, requiring implementation over the next several years and making short-term benefits unlikely," the Atlanta-based company said.

Coca-Cola shares fell as much as 5.8 percent to a 16-month low on the New York Stock Exchange (search) following the earnings warning. The stock dropped sharply last week when the largest Coca-Cola bottler also warned of a profit shortfall.

"We're nearing a breakdown of sentiment toward the stock here," said David Kolpak, an analyst at Victory Capital Management. "This is as dark a view as Wall Street has had on this stock in the nine years that I have been covering it."

"Significant measures are likely to be taken to address (the company's) challenges, and the financial impact is currently unknown," Merrill Lynch said in a research note.

In a conference call, Coca-Cola's new chairman and chief executive, Neville Isdell (search), declined to say what actions the company planned but said it would take time to solve the problems.

Coca-Cola said worldwide case volume would be flat to up 1 percent in the third quarter. By contrast, PepsiCo Inc.'s largest bottler said last week that its worldwide case volume was up 2 percent in the quarter ended Sept. 4.

In a switch from its usual policy of not providing earnings outlooks, Coca-Cola forecast a profit of 46 cents to 48 cents per share for the third quarter and 88 cents to 92 cents per share for the second half.

Wall Street analysts, on average, have been expecting 54 cents per share for the third quarter and 45 cents per share for the fourth quarter, according to Reuters Estimates.

While not disclosing specific plans to improve sales, Isdell said Coca-Cola was not in discussions to buy its largest bottler, Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. (CCE).

Some analysts have speculated that Isdell, who has a background in the bottling business, would look to acquire Coke Enterprises, in which Coca-Cola is the largest shareholder.

"All the discussions that we're having with CCE and about CCE are about what is going on with the business today," Isdell said. "That's it, period."

He stressed that Coca-Cola Co., not the bottlers, needs to lead the Coca-Cola system.

"Isdell, in the clearest possible way, was saying that he is going to lead this company and the company is going to lead the bottling system," said John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest, a closely followed industry newsletter.

One of the company's most difficult markets is Germany, where case volume is falling in the mid-teen percentage range in the third quarter, Coca-Cola said.

Coca-Cola has been hurt by the rise of discount retailers that typically offer only a house brand of soft drink, shutting out or limiting products like Coke, one analyst said.

At the same time, environmental laws in Germany are forcing the company to switch to more expensive glass bottles from plastic.

In the high-profit Northern European market, third-quarter volume is down in the high-single digits on a percentage basis. A year ago, a heat wave in Europe was spurring soft drink sales.

In France, volume is down in the double digits, worse than the company expected.

Coca-Cola shares closed down $1.71 to $41.16 in trade on the New York Stock Exchange after falling as low as $40.39 earlier in the session.