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Bottles of Cott ginger ale move down the bottling line a the company's plant in Mississauga

Even as budget-conscious soda drinkers switched to cheaper alternatives, Cott , the world's biggest producer of store-brand pop, lost money in the second half of 2008. The company has returned to profitability this year.

Cott posted a first-quarter profit of 28 cents (U.S.) a share, despite a 6 per cent sales drop, causing its stock to more than double in the week following the earnings release. Cott shares have more than quadrupled this year, trouncing major U.S. indices.

Most people who didn't join the soda rally assume the fun is over and have started looking for the next high-flying stock. But Cott just posted another stellar quarter and its shares are still extraordinarily cheap relative to its peers.

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Second-quarter revenue fell 6 per cent to $439-million, but earnings surged on higher margins. Cott swung to a net profit of $34 million, or 48 cents, from a loss of $1.8 million, or 3 cents, in the year-earlier period. Its operating margin climbed from 3 per cent to 9 per cent and the net margin rose from negative territory to 8 per cent. The company cut its staff, which reduced its selling, general and administrative expenses by 21 per cent and helped its bottom line.

Still, the company's cash position is weak, reflected by a quick ratio of 0.8. And a debt-to-equity ratio of 1.2 reflects sizable leverage.

Despite its balance sheet woes, there are reasons to be optimistic about Cott. The stock is still affordable even after rising 354 per cent this year. Based on analysts' estimates, the shares trade at price-to-earnings ratio of 8.2 based on this year's projections and a 7.7 ratio for next year, a vast discount to the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 Index.

Based on book value, Cott is trading at a 74 per cent discount to its competitors. On a cash flow basis, the stock is 73 per cent cheaper. And based on sales, it's a whopping 92% cheaper. Large-cap peers, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo , are significantly more expensive and offer less growth potential.

Cott has had a difficult time in recent years, and it recently warned investors of higher commodity prices and weaker case volumes for this year. Nevertheless, this small-cap deserves a look.

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