It is now a year since Anheuser-Busch InBev BUD -0.95% bought key rival SABMiller in a $103 billion deal that reshaped the global brewing industry. History is often cruel to mega-mergers, but with U.S. tastes shifting, SABMiller looks like it
was worth every cent.
Weak third-quarter sales trends reported Thursday by the world’s largest brewer would have been even weaker without SAB’s portfolio, which was skewed to emerging markets, particularly Africa. And management will offset some of the top-line damage by extracting more savings from the continuing integration.
The U.S. remains AB InBev’s central problem. Third-quarter revenue in the country was 5.7% lower than a year earlier. Supply disruptions during the fearsome hurricane season explain part of the slump: The wholesalers that have intermediated the U.S. beer industry and customers since Prohibition ran down inventory. But sales to retailers also slackened, particularly for Budweiser and Bud Light.
The declines can’t be attributed to the U.S. economy: Unemployment is low and consumer confidence high. Americans are choosing to spend more money on spirits, and when they do drink beer they are increasingly experimental. The latest craze, which also has hit the growth of once-hip craft brews, seems to be the microbrewery taproom.
AB InBev is less exposed to these trends than it was before the SABMiller deal, a condition of which was the sale of the target’s Miller stake to former partner Molson Coors. Even now, however, the U.S. accounts for more than 30% of AB InBev’s equity-adjusted profits, according to estimates from Bernstein. The stock sank 2% in morning trading in Europe despite a bump in estimated merger synergies that could prompt analysts to upgrade their profit forecasts.
Investors took a similarly half-glass-empty approach to mixed results on Wednesday from Heineken, now the global number two. Just think how bad things would look now for AB InBev if it hadn’t pulled off last year’s mega-deal.
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