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Kraft Heinz shares fall 28 percent after writedown, dividend cut

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(Reuters) – Kraft Heinz Co shares fell to a record low on Friday a day after the food company disclosed a $15 billion write-down on its marquee brands, raising concern that years of rigorous cost cutting have eroded the value of its Kraft cheeses and Oscar Mayer deli meats.

Kraft’s revenue growth has stagnated in the years since it merged with Heinz as consumers shun older, established brands for newer products, cheaper private label brands and non-processed and organic food.

The shares fell as much 28 percent to a low of $34.51, wiping $17 billion off the company’s market value. In mid-afternoon trading, shares were down $13.10 at $35.07.

(Graphic: Kraft Heinz stock crushed by writedown – tmsnrt.rs/2BNXPcJ)

Shares of rivals food makers also fell, with General Mills, Conagra Brands Inc, Unilever and Nestle SA all down between 1 percent and 3 percent.

Brazil’s buyout fund 3G Capital and Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc together own more than 50 percent of Kraft Heinz. 3G has advocated the company combat higher transportation, commodity costs and sluggish growth by reining in expenses companywide. But that has come at a price.

“Investors for years have asked if 3G’s extreme belt-tightening model ultimately would result in brand equity erosion,” JPMorgan analyst Ken Goldman said.

“We think the answer arguably came yesterday in the form of a $15 billion intangible asset write-down for the Kraft and Oscar Mayer brands,” said Goldman, who cut his rating to “neutral” from “overweight.”

On Thursday, Kraft Heinz, whose brands include Jell-O gelatin dessert and Velveeta processed cheese, reported a quarterly loss, said it would cut its dividend 36 percent and disclosed that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating the company’s accounting policies.

Ketchup-maker Heinz merged with Kraft in 2015 in a deal engineered by 3G. Under 3G’s stewardship, the new company embarked on extreme cost cutting that risked stifling investment in innovation and marketing.

Warren Buffett releases his annual letter to shareholders on Saturday and investors will scour the document for any insight from the billionaire on his Kraft stake and relationship with 3G.

ZERO-BASED BUDGETING

Under 3G, Kraft Heinz embraced zero-based budgeting, a cost-conscious strategy intended to improve operating margins that requires managers to justify all expenses, from pencils to forklifts.

Some analysts are now questioning the effectiveness of 3G’s model, given that the company’s margins before interest and taxes fell to 23.2 percent in 2018 from 27.2 percent in 2015, the year Kraft Heinz was formed.

“We see the 3G model as highly dependent on deal-making and synergy realization and at some point having best-in-class margins doesn’t matter if the sales growth doesn’t eventually come,” Guggenheim Partners’ analyst Laurent Grandet said in a note.

“Kraft Heinz results confirmed all our worst fears – plus more,” Grandet wrote in a note.

Stifel downgraded the stock to “hold” from “buy” and more than halved its price target to $35, well below the current median target of $52.

Credit Suisse cut its price target by $9 to $33, making it the lowest on Wall Street.

“This is not your typical “reset the base and everything will be fine” story,” Credit Suisse analyst Robert Moskow wrote.

FILE PHOTO: Heinz tomato Ketchup is show on display during a preview of a new Walmart Super Center prior to its opening in Compton, California, U.S., January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

“The dividend cut, the write-down of the Kraft and Oscar Mayer trademarks, and the guidance for further divestitures demonstrate the hallmarks of a company that has a serious balance sheet problem,” Moskow said.

The news also hit the company’s bond investors. Kraft Heinz’s nearly $31 billion of bonds were among the most heavily traded paper in the U.S. corporate debt market on Friday morning, according to MarketAxess, and yields on several of their largest bonds shot higher and their prices dropped by a full point or more.

Spreads on their bonds, or the premium demanded by investors as compensation for holding Kraft paper over safer U.S. Treasury securities, widened by the most ever across a range of the company’s bonds.

Reporting by Siddharth Cavale and Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru; additional reporting by Anna Driver; Editing by Bernard Orr, Sweta Singh and Steve Orlofsky

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S&P 500 posts highest close since November 8 on trade optimism

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NEW YORK (Reuters) – The S&P 500 posted its highest closing level since Nov. 8 on Friday as investors clung to signs of progress in the ongoing trade talks between the United States and China.

Investors assessed a slew of headlines on the talks, with top trade negotiators from the two countries meeting to wrap up a week of discussions on some of the thorniest issues in their trade war.

If the two sides fail to reach a deal by midnight on March 1, then their seven-month trade war could escalate.

“People are expecting some sort of positive news on trade and tariffs with China fairly soon,” said Peter Tuz, president of Chase Investment Counsel in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“But we won’t know until the end of next week,” he said, and, “there has been a lack of specifics.”

Optimism on the trade front and dovish signals from the U.S. Federal Reserve have driven the recent gains and left indexes well above their lows of December, when the market swooned on fears of an economic slowdown. The S&P 500 is now up about 19 percent since its late-December low.

The S&P 500 technology index was up 1.3 percent, leading gains among the 11 major S&P sectors, while the trade-exposed industrials index climbed 0.6 percent.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 181.18 points, or 0.7 percent, to 26,031.81, the S&P 500 gained 17.79 points, or 0.64 percent, to 2,792.67 and the Nasdaq Composite added 67.84 points, or 0.91 percent, to 7,527.55.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., February 22, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

All three indexes registered gains for the week, with both the Dow and Nasdaq posting a ninth week of increases.

The number of New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq stocks hitting 52-week highs hit 367, the most since mid-September and outnumbered those hitting year lows by the widest margin in six months.

Stocks briefly pared gains after U.S. officials briefed on the negotiations said more time is likely needed in the talks given China’s resistance this week to American demands for specific steps by Beijing to end forced transfers of U.S. technology and certain other policies.

Afterward, President Donald Trump said there was a very good chance the United States would strike a deal with China to end the trade war, and that he was inclined to extend his March 1 deadline to reach an agreement.

“Right now the downside risk has been not as steep, but there’s always a concern that something happens last-minute,” said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.

“Having a Chinese economy that stabilizes is constructive for global markets,” she said. “That’s what is key in terms of the market looking at the results.”

Kraft Heinz Co tumbled 27.5 percent, and was the biggest drag on the S&P along with a 1.7 percent fall in Class B shares of the company’s controlling stakeholder, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

The packaged food company posted a quarterly loss, disclosed a Securities and Exchange Commission probe and wrote down the value of its iconic Kraft and Oscar Mayer brands.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 2.99-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 2.45-to-1 ratio favored advancers.

The S&P 500 posted 64 new 52-week highs and three new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 112 new highs and 21 new lows.

About 6.9 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges. That compares with the 7.3 billion-share daily average for the past 20 trading days.

Additional reporting by Shreyashi Sanyal and Sruthi Shankar in Bengaluru; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis

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FCA sets $14 million annual target compensation for CEO Manley: filing

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FILE PHOTO: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) CEO Mike Manley arrives at the memorial service held in honor of former CEO Sergio Marchionne in Turin, Italy, September 14, 2018. REUTERS/Massimo Pinca/File Photo

DETROIT (Reuters) – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV (FCA) has set an annual compensation target for Chief Executive Officer Mike Manley consisting of pay, cash and equity bonuses of $14 million, the automaker said in a regulatory filing on Friday.

Manley took over as the head of FCA last July after the abrupt departure of his predecessor Sergio Marchionne. The company paid its new CEO 600,442 euros ($680,240) for 2018 and he will receive a bonus for 2018 of $367,000 to be paid this year.

Manley also was granted FCA 180,364 shares for his work in 2018, which will vest in 2019 if the company meets certain targets. The fair value per share on the date those were granted was $16.61, FCA said.

His target annual compensation consists of a base salary of $1.6 million, and a bonus of $2.4 million and an equity award valued at $10 million, both linked to the company hitting certain performance targets.

Former CEO Marchionne received 6.6 million euros in compensation for 2018, which consisted of nearly 2 million euros in base pay and an annual bonus for 2017 of just over 4.6 million euros.

For the 2014 to 2017 time period, Marchionne also received 2.8 million FCA shares. The fair value per share was $14.84, FCA said.

FCA chairman John Elkann received a base salary of 1.7 million euros and no annual bonus.

Reporting by Nick Carey; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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Flattening U.S. yield curve in late 2018 ‘flashing red’ on economy: Fed’s Williams

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President and Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, John Williams, addresses a news conference in Zurich, Switzerland September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/File Photo

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A flattening U.S. yield curve in December, which was close to being inverted, was “flashing red” about a deceleration in U.S. economic growth heading into 2019, despite some solid data at the time, New York Federal Reserve President John Williams said on Friday.

The yield curve flattens as the gap between short and long-dated yields narrow, suggesting investors’ worries about a slowing economy.

The yield curve inverts when shorter-dated yields rise above longer-dated ones. An inverted yield curve has preceded all U.S. recessions in the past 50 years.

Williams was giving closing remarks at a conference about quantitative tools, jointly sponsored by the New York Fed and the Atlanta Federal Reserve.

Reporting by Richard Leong; editing by Diane Craft

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