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Baby Formula Makers Continue to Fall

Wed, 07/03/2013 - 12:34pm

NEW YORK (AP) — Shares of infant formula makers continued to decline on Wednesday as China investigates alleged price fixing and an analyst downgraded one of the companies named in the inquiry, Mead Johnson Nutrition Co.

On Tuesday the state-run People's Daily reported that companies also including Abbott Laboratories, Nestle SA, Danone SA and Dutch-based FrieslandCampina are under investigation by the National Development and Reform Commission for allegedly violating anti-monopoly laws by charging high prices and limiting competition.

A spokesman for the commission confirmed the report and said the investigation was continuing. He refused to give his name, as is common with Chinese officials.

Abbott, Nestle and Mead Johnson Nutrition said Tuesday that they are cooperating with the review.

Abbott's stock declined 87 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $33.99 in midday trading on Wednesday. Over the past year, the shares have traded between $31.64 and $72.47.

Another company under investigation is Biostime International Holdings Ltd. Biostime said in a statement on Wednesday that it has yet to be informed of any of the investigation's progress so far and that it will fully cooperate with the commission.

Consumers in China have been wary to trust domestically produced infant formula. In 2004, fake Chinese milk powder left at least a dozen babies dead from malnutrition. That was followed by a melamine-tainted milk scandal in 2008 that killed at least six babies and sickened nearly 300,000 others.

In May Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told a meeting of Cabinet officials that the quality of infant formula should be tested with the same standards used for medicines and that each step of the production process must be monitored.

John Baumgartner of Wells Fargo lowered Mead Johnson Nutrition to "Market Perform" from "Outperform." He also reduced its 12-month price target range to $76 to $78 from $87 to $89.

In a client note, the analyst said the companies named in the China investigation make up less than 60 percent of China's infant nutrition market, calling anti-trust concerns "somewhat premature."

Baumgartner also believes that if Mead Johnson Nutrition is faced with a fine from China related to price fixing that it should be financially manageable, given prior fines the country has handed out.

Still, Baumgartner says the investigation's impact on investor sentiment shouldn't be discounted. The analyst believes that investors are likely not happy to hear that there is more Chinese government scrutiny of foreign companies, considering that China is such a large hub for business. Baumgartner says China/Hong Kong comprised approximately 30 percent of Mead Johnson Nutrition's 2012 sales.

The analyst is also concerned about potential rising dairy costs. Baumgartner estimates that Mead Johnson Nutrition's dairy costs may climb up to 33 percent year-over-year during the first half of 2014. The analyst said that price hikes and cost cuts usually help to alleviate some of the pressure, but that gross domestic product deceleration across developing markets could make it hard to raise some prices, especially outside of China.

Shares of Mead Johnson Nutrition fell $6.54, or 8.7 percent, to $68.36. The stock has traded in a 52-week range of $61.27 to $86.87.

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