Kraft Heinz has resisted a further cut to its dividend even as the food company grapples with a $28bn debt burden and falling sales, raising the prospect of further asset sales to avoid a junk credit rating.

Results on Thursday showed the company, whose products include Heinz ketchup, HP Sauce and Kraft macaroni and cheese, is still battling to stop consumers defecting to healthier and trendier products.

A new round of writedowns helped push shares in Kraft Heinz, backed by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway and the Brazilian-US investment group 3G Capital, down 8 per cent in lunchtime trading in New York.

The latest non-cash charges comprised a $213m goodwill impairment on Maxwell House coffee and a $453m hit on assets in Australia, New Zealand and a Latin America exports business.

But directors at the company, whose weak performance has epitomised the challenges facing legacy consumer brands, kept the payout to shareholders steady at 40 cents a share.

The decision “seems to set up a showdown” with credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s, said Chris Growe, analyst at Stifel.

S&P had said ahead of the results that Kraft Heinz may need to cut the dividend again to preserve an investment-grade rating. Shares in Kraft Heinz had already fallen 31 per cent since the start of 2019, when the company cut its dividend by more than one-third.

Line chart of Shares price ($) showing Kraft Heinz shares take new hit

Miguel Patricio, who became chief executive a year ago, said the latest dividend decision was a sign of “confidence in our turnaround plan and our ability to reposition Kraft Heinz for sustainable long-term growth and returns”.

Yet Paulo Basilio, chief financial officer, acknowledged Kraft Heinz’s leverage may not have fallen “as rapidly as desired”.

The company, created in 2015 by the combination of Kraft and Heinz in a deal engineered by 3G and Mr Buffett, ended 2019 with $28.2bn in long-term debt compared with $30.8bn a year ago.

Mr Basilio said the company would “continue to evaluate opportunities” to make divestitures but was “in no rush” to do so.

The results for 2019 were “disappointing” and the company’s turnround “will take time”, but the company would this year lay “a strong foundation for future growth”, Mr Patricio said.

Kraft Heinz was able to increase average prices 2 percentage points in the final three months of 2019, but revenues were hit because volumes slid 4.3 points, with particular weakness in the US.

Sales fell 5.1 per cent from a year ago to $6.53bn. Excluding effects of currency fluctuations and asset disposals, they were down 2.2 per cent.


Net revenue growth in Q4 2019 at Kraft Heinz’s rival PepsiCo

The latest charges follow a $15bn writedown the group took a year ago to reflect gloomier prospects for some of its best-known brands, including Oscar Mayer meats. That had pushed the company to a net loss of $12.6bn for the fourth quarter of 2018.

Net income was $182m in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Kraft Heinz is wrestling with demands from shareholders and credit rating agencies at the same time as it tries to target investments in marketing and product improvements. The Chicago-based company’s problems have brought scrutiny to 3G’s approach to expenses, with critics on Wall Street complaining it had become too reliant on cost cuts to drive returns.

Rivals have said they are bearing fruit from investments they are making, particularly in new, healthier products.

Hugh Johnston, chief financial officer of PepsiCo, said on Thursday that the food and drinks company was showing the results of a “pivot to growth” after net revenues rose 5.7 per cent in the fourth quarter to $20.6bn.

Products being pushed by PepsiCo include sugar-free adaptations of its Gatorade and Mountain Dew drinks. A caffeinated version of Bubly sparkling water is being planned for this year.

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