Major global consumer-facing companies like McDonald’s, General Motors and Nestle posted steady first-quarter results built on higher prices, showing how consumers across major economies are still spending despite slowed economic activity.
Shoppers have absorbed price increases for soda, appliances and other goods, bolstering company profits. However, sales volumes declined for many bellwethers in Europe and the United States, raising investor concerns that consumers are starting to balk at increased costs as the economic outlook dims.
“There is uncertainty on how the consumer environment may ultimately play out in 2023,” Coca-Cola Chief Executive James Quincey said on a call with investors.
Consumers have more wiggle room in their budgets, said Ben Ayers, senior economist at Nationwide Economics, pointing to increased use of revolving credit, along with the still-resilient job market. However, that pricing power may not last, as U.S. consumer confidence fell to a nine-month low in April, led by a worsening outlook that could temper spending.
U.S. automaker General Motors Co (GM.N) lifted its full-year profit expectations Tuesday, saying demand has been stronger than forecast. Even though electric vehicle leader Tesla (TSLA.O) has been slashing prices to spur demand, GM was able to increase average wholesale prices for North American deliveries by $1,800 per vehicle.
“We feel really good about where we are priced right now and consumers seem to be demanding our products,” Chief Financial Officer Paul Jacobson said during GM’s conference call.
So far, U.S. companies are exceeding estimates by more than 8% in the first quarter, and consumer discretionary names have beaten forecasts by 20%, according to I/B/E/S data from Refinitiv. Global stock markets were down 0.8% on Tuesday following the results.
Beverage giant Coca-Cola Co (KO.N) said average selling prices rose by 11%, while rival PepsiCo Inc (PEP.O) said its prices gained 16% in the first quarter. Pepsi’s CEO said the company is confident about improved growth in China, where first-quarter GDP rebounded after that country loosened longtime coronavirus restrictions.
“We’re seeing in China, an optimism in the customers and that’s driving volume for us across both our food and our beverage business,” Ramon Laguarta, PepsiCo chairman and CEO, said on an analyst call.
Executives said inflation is hitting customers, particularly in Europe. McDonald’s Corp (MCD.N) sales rose 12.6% worldwide for the quarter, beating expectations, but company CFO Ian Borden said “elevated cost inflation continued to put significant pressure on restaurant cash flows, particularly for our European franchisees.”
However, Nestle SA CEO Mark Schneider said “the European consumer has fared better than expected.” Switzerland-based Nestle (NESN.S) increased prices by nearly 10% during the quarter even as sales volumes fell 0.5%.
The U.S. consumer’s outlook on the future is grim, according to the Conference Board, as short-term expectations fell and consumers reduced plans for big purchases.
GM’s Jacobson said the pricing gains the automaker enjoyed in the first quarter probably won’t last, while global shipping leader United Parcel Service (UPS.N) forecast full-year revenue at the lower end of estimates for 2023.
“Deceleration in U.S. retail sales resulted in lower volume than we anticipated, and we faced ongoing demand weakness in Asia,” UPS CEO Carol Tomé said. UPS shares were down 9% on Tuesday, on target for their biggest one-day drop in more than eight years.
Companies during the quarter did not necessarily expand sales volumes, but were able to pass on costs, said Jack Ablin, Cresset Capital chief investment officer. That may not last if consumers pull back, however.
“Consumers right now are willing to go along with it, but I think many of these companies are on a short leash when it comes to pricing,” he said.