Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Kraft Heinz and Unilever’s food fight

Kraft Heinz's $143 billion bid for Unilever is a low-ball offer but if it comes back with more, Unilever will need to serve up with some clever ideas to stay independent

Unilever may have a fight on its hands to stay independent in the face of a pursuit by US food giant Kraft Heinz Co. The Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group has rebutted an initial $143 billion cash-and-shares proposal. It sounds big but it’s a low-ball offer that’s easy to swat away. If Kraft comes back with more, Unilever will need to serve up with some clever ideas to stay independent.

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Size is no defence. Unilever was valued at £101 billion prior to Kraft’s interest leaking. But it is trapped in some awkward trends. Even though it is an international stock denominated in sterling, the shares have under-performed the FTSE 100 over the past year. Recently it has fallen victim to the sell-o in plodding defensive stocks as investors have sought racier growth stories.

For Kraft, the attraction is the chance to grab an asset that provides a great platform for what it does best: rip out cost by integrating businesses or staging a break-up. The US group has fattened margins considerably over the past three years and more progress is expected.

The approach was at $50 a share, with $30.23 in cash and the rest in stock. That’s roughly a 20% premium over Unilever’s closing share price on Thursday and 25% above its three-month average. It’s clearly just an opening shot and Unilever is right to reject it outright.

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To have a chance of success, Kraft will need to offer more value and perhaps more cash. The share component of the initial proposal is a big problem. Kraft is 100% food, while Unilever is 60% consumer goods and household products. There are no synergies between Dove and ketchup. Maybe there’s a partner involved to take the non-food piece.

What’s more, Kraft has a mixed record at sustaining sales growth in its acquisitions. To grow, it needs to keep doing M&A. All told, Unilever investors would be switching into a very different investment story.

How much cash can Kraft put into the mix? It looks like it wants to gear up Unilever’s balance sheet, effectively paying the cash back to the target’s own shareholders. Spreads on 10-year Unilever debt widened 40 basis points on the news. Maybe Kraft’s friend Warren Buffett can help by providing some equity. But he’ll be mindful of his own returns. That could limit how much equity he would contribute.

If Kraft can’t put any more cash in, the risk is that its own share price falls as it tries to use more shares. For now, the market is helpfully cheering it on.