Anheuser Profit Meets Estimates; U.S. Growth Lagging

Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc.  (BUD), the largest U.S. brewer, said Wednesday quarterly profit rose on price increases for brands such as Bud Light and strong growth in its international business, which benefited from the acquisition of Harbin Brewery (search) in China.

The brewer blamed the weakness in its domestic performance on cool, wet weather in markets such as the southeastern United States.

Net income rose to $684 million, or 85 cents a share, in the third quarter, from $664 million, or 80 cents a share, a year earlier, the company said.

Analysts were expecting earnings per share in a range of 84 cents to 87 cents, with an average estimate of 85 cents, according to Reuters Estimates.

The company said gross sales rose to $4.68 billion from $4.47 billion. Net sales, which include the impact of excise taxes, rose to $4.08 billion from $3.88 billion.

The volume of Anheuser-Busch brands sold rose 8.5 percent in the third quarter. In the United States, the St. Louis-based company's biggest market, volume edged up 0.1 percent.

A strong focus on volume should not blind investors to other benefits the company is producing, such as returning cash to shareholders through stock buybacks, said Todd Stender, analyst at Crowell, Weedon and Co.

"If you focus too much on volumes year after year, I think you are missing the big picture," said Stender, who has a rating of "buy" on the shares.

Anheuser-Busch's smooth integration of Harbin shows that the company has other ways to increase earnings per share beyond volume strength, Stender added.

The company said revenue earned on products sold in the United States, which makes up 73 percent of its volume, grew 2.1 percent per barrel during the quarter. To strengthen this trend, the brewer raised prices in some areas of the United States in the first few weeks of October, with another round of price hikes planned for the first quarter of 2005.

Despite sluggish growth in the United States, Anheuser-Busch products still have a 50 percent market share of beer sold in the United States.

Anheuser-Busch is locked in a fierce battle with SABMiller Plc.'s (search) Miller Brewing for U.S. market share. The two companies have stepped up their attacks on each other's products through their advertising campaigns.

Anheuser-Busch forecast earnings-per-share growth of 10 percent to 11 percent for 2004, excluding the benefit of a commodity hedge gain. For 2005, the company said it expects earnings-per-share growth in a range of 7 percent to 10 percent. It also said it remained confident in its ability to increase earnings per share at a double digit rate over the long term.

Shares of Anheuser-Busch fell 39 cents to $49.91 in Wednesday trading on the New York Stock Exchange (search).