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Why Dean Foods is more expensive than Apple

Cartons of Horizon DHA Omega-3 fortified milk are displayed for sale at a supermarket in Washington, D.C., U.S. on Thursday, July 26, 2012. The scientist at the center of a dispute over the content of advertising of Dean Foods Co.’s Horizon fortified organic milk said she’s satisfied by the company’s confirmation that it expects to stop referring to her work on the product’s cartons. Photographer: Rich Clement/Bloomberg

Rich Clement/Bloomberg

When the most pedestrian of groceries can surprise investors, something has clearly gone off. Along with an unexpected profit, Dean Foods Co. unveiled a corporate split – of one sort of milk from another. By sending the U.S. company's valuation soaring 40 per cent, the dairy engineering exposed glaring inefficiencies.

Selling milk is a low-margin business. Most shoppers just pick the cheapest gallon they can find. Many commodity prices, from diesel to grain, can hit margins hard. Passing along such costs to customers isn't easy. Naturally, investors had become increasingly concerned about how the vast U.S. drought would affect Dean. When the company generated net income of $35-million (U.S.) for the quarter, about 15 per cent higher than expected, the market was pleasantly surprised.

It was a spinoff, though, that really got investors churning. Dean opted to float a portion of WhiteWave, its health foods and organic milk businesses, the fastest-growing parts of the dairy empire. Revenue there is increasing more than 10 per cent a year but falling elsewhere at Dean. Gearing up WhiteWave also should help Dean pay down debt.

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Carve-ups are of course meant to unlock value. But it's not as if the value of Dean's organic milk could have been obscured by its non-organic milk the way, say, General Electric's turbines get muddled by the commercial leases at GE Capital. What's more, the possibility of a WhiteWave spin has been kicking around for a while. Dean now trades at more than 14 times estimated 2012 earnings, a premium to the market and fast-growing companies like Apple. Milk is apparently on par with the iPhone.

Financial engineering hasn't exactly been a forte at Dean. In early 2007, with its stock trading around $45, the company paid a special dividend of $15 a share. A year later, Dean was forced to issue a slug of shares at $20 apiece to deal with its debt problem. It's hard to swallow sweeping theories of efficient markets when the supposed gurus don't even get milk.

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