NBJ tackles the complex topic of finance & investment in the nutrition industry with our next issue, now on its way to the printer. As we digest all of the research and trending that surfaced in the reporting of that issue, expect some discussion in the coming weeks on the blog about such topics as holistic investing, moving upstream through the murky waters of deal flow, and the modern challenges of being a nutrition entrepreneur. Today, though, let’s talk about the equity markets.
I spoke to Scott Van Winkle of Canaccord Genuity and, on a separate call, Andy Wolf of BB&T Capital Markets to gain some visibility into smart money’s opinion of the road ahead for nutrition stocks. Excerpts from those conversations follow below.
NBJ: Let’s look at the major industry categories in nutrition and talk about year-to-date performance. How about natural & organic foods?
Scott Van Winkle: In general, healthy-living stocks have outperformed the market this year. Natural & organic has the best sector performance, up about 12%. These stocks didn’t start to come back until later in the cycle, but now they are beginning to reflect improved growth in the category.
Andy Wolf: Natural & organic is about 80-90% recovered, in terms of underlying growth trends. It’s really come back as a category. You can see it in the industry numbers and in the company numbers. There’s been a little bit of channel play, and you can still see some slack in demand at conventional stores, but that too is starting to show a rebound. The demand never went away for natural & organic, but in the recession, even dedicated users were worried about finances. Now most of them have made the budget allocation and returned to the category.
NBJ: And supplements?
SVW: Supplements are down about 12%, but the 40% move in NBTY improves that number dramatically. Supplements performed well last year with strong industry trends, and those trends persist, but investors lack faith. Strong category growth brings increased competition, and as we anniversary the jump in sales from swine flu, people expect a slow down. Vitamins were up 18% in October/November 2009. That kind of growth was obviously driven by the cold and flu season, in turn driven by swine flu.
AW: Supplements have had a multi-year run as consumers adopt these healthy lifestyle choices. People want to live better and feel better. Supplements also enjoy a countercyclical demand. As unemployment goes up and consumers lose more health-care benefits, more people use supplements as a substitute for doctor visits—which are down, by the way. It’s a prophylactic approach. Demand looks robust to me across all sales channels for supplements.
SVW: Ingredients are up about 3% through the end of July. Last year, the farther down the supply chain you were from the consumer, the likelier you were to see your customers deload or reduce inventory. Ingredient suppliers had a tough time in 2009. There weren’t a lot of new product launches, and customers were cleaning out their inventories. There are signs of more aggressive ordering now, so the fundamental businesses are stronger than they were coming out of last year.
As for MLMs, they’re up about 5%. These stocks outperformed early, because their business was stronger on a relative basis. With weak economics, everybody buys less, but there’s more unemployment and more people looking for part-time work. In a weak economic cycle, more new distributors come online, even though their average sales level drops. Net-net, MLMs were less impacted by global economic issues.
NBJ: What about functional foods?
AW: Functional foods have really lagged. Why? Mix. Most functional products are sold through conventional stores, and demand hasn’t picked up as well in the mass market. I don’t see a real recovery for functional foods until the broader economic recovery is more firmly entrenched sometime in 2011.
NBJ: Looking ahead, where do you see the best performance and the biggest challenges?
AW: The big issue for 2011 is converts. For 20 years now, consumers have been moving, in one way or another, from conventional to organic. The demand curve is still there, but all of the core customers have already come back. Whole Foods Market and other retailers are seeing new customers come into the channel, but for that to continue, well, the economy will have something to say about that as well.
SVW: Retailers are in a very good position in general. They are demanding price concessions from suppliers, and suppliers are giving them. Whole Foods Market and Vitamin Shoppe are in good position, thanks to this competitive advantage over suppliers. Over the next six to 12 months, I think the MLM sector is going to perform quite well. Natural foods will perform well. Supplements will tread water due to Wall Street’s impression of decelerating growth.