Walmart weighs in, consumer stocks fall

The logo outside of a Walmart is shown in this March 17, 2020 file photo. (AP/Matt Rourke)
The logo outside of a Walmart is shown in this March 17, 2020 file photo. (AP/Matt Rourke)

The bad news keeps piling up for the makers of everything from soft drinks to chocolate and booze.

The latest blow took the form of comments from Walmart Inc., which said this week it's already seeing an effect on shopping demand from people taking Ozempic, Wegovy and other appetite-suppressing medications. That's sent shares of food and beverage companies sliding.

Oreo maker Mondelez International Inc. was among the worst performers in the S&P 500 Consumer Staples Index on Friday, extending Thursday's plunge to hit the lowest level since November 2022. Kellanova, the company behind Cheez-It and Pringles, PepsiCo Inc. and Modelo maker Constellation Brands Inc. all slumped. The consumer staples gauge fell as much as 2.7% on Friday, and it's on pace for its worst week since September 2022, with retailers Walmart, Costco Wholesale Corp. and Kroger Co. also tumbling.

"When Walmart mentioned it, I think the concept of weight loss drugs having a broader effect on a wide range of companies really took hold in investors' minds," said Steve Sosnick, chief strategist at Interactive Brokers.

In Europe, food and beverage companies also came under pressure. Chocolatier Lindt & Spruengli AG and Anheuser-Busch InBev SA slid, while Nestle SA dropped 2.5%, the most since May.

Consumer stocks have been falling for some time, especially as inflation squeezes household incomes. The industry also tends to pay hefty dividends that look less appealing for investors compared with 5% interest at money market funds. The S&P 500 Consumer Staples Index has significantly underperformed the broader market in 2023, and it's trading at the lowest level in a year.

Given the rapid popularity of this new class of weight loss drugs and an early warning from one of the biggest retailers, it's been enough to spark another round of selling. A recent survey conducted by Morgan Stanley found that patients tended to cut back on meals and snacks while taking weight loss drugs, and also consumed less alcohol and carbonated drinks.

Still, there's some skepticism about whether the medications will actually cause major changes in consumer buying habits. Investors like Richard Saldanha, global equity fund manager at Aviva Investors, caution against reading too much into the stock-market swings.

"Whilst we know that these drugs do tend to result in suppressed appetite, we think the moves in the share prices do feel somewhat overdone," he said. "It is far too early to make sweeping conclusions on what this might mean for consumer habits."

Last month, Nestle's outgoing Chief Financial Officer Francois-Xavier Roger played down fears the new drugs would hit big food companies, saying the dropout rates were high and that most of Nestle's categories are protected.

Confectionery, milk and milk products and prepared dishes and cooking aids represent around a third of Nestle's sales. Shareholder groups criticized Nestle this week for not being ambitious enough in making its portfolio healthier.

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