Clover, the Australia-based health and nutrition group, is set to benefit from a booming baby formula market in China and the EU, although the gains will not come from supplying formula into this heavily competitive space. Clover's niche expertise is supplying an essential proprietary ingredient to several brands, for which it holds patented rights under licence from CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), until 2027. If the experience of companies like Bellamy’s Australia Ltd (ASX: BAL) and A2 Milk Company Ltd (ASX: A2M) is taken as an example, this niche could prove profitable for Clover and in fact on a relative basis, it has outperformed these bigger rivals in the past year.
Clover Corporation supplies DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a key ingredient in infant formula. This is an omega-3 fatty acid that occurs naturally in breast milk and is scientifically proven to support brain development, is critical for optimal brain health, benefits eye health and may guard against heart disease.
Clover Corporation is a leading supplier of DHA in an encapsulated tuna oil or powdered form. Baby formulas use a number oils to maintain fatty acid content, and of these DHA is by far the most important as its replicates natural milk properties most efficiently. Clover maintains a strong position versus rivals in supplying DHA both due to the high quality of its product and its proprietary encapsulation process. This process means the end product doesn’t smell of or taste like fish, but still retains the nutritional benefits, and has a longer two-year shelf life.
Euromonitor estimates that the global infant formula market is worth around $47bn USD and will continue to grow at around 5% per year for the next 5 years. Similarly, Zenith, global food and drink experts, estimates the market is worth over $50bn and will grow at 7% per year for the next 5 years. Of this growth, the most compelling is China, as our head of Equity Strategy Peter Garnry notes, Chinese infant formula demand is driving revenue for key infant formula suppliers.
This growth story is not the only reason that makes Clover a compelling investment, the company is not an end supplier, but provides a key ingredient, and has more than 50 clients so brand specific risks are diversified. Clover supplies a large proportion of baby formulas makers globally, and retains its own intellectual property through the licensed encapsulation process, giving it a competitive edge against rivals.
Clover is also set to benefit from EU regulations that set minimum DHA levels at twice current levels by 2020. This will increase demand for Clover’s product from European clients, but should also spur a knock on as other countries follow Europe’s regulatory lead. Europe only makes up a small portion of Clover’s sales at present, but it is a key focus area for the company going forward.
Clover is growing very quickly with half year revenue up 60% on HY17 due to increasing demand, earnings also grew very quickly, rising by 200%. Increased Chinese demand and regulatory stability has driven increased demand across key clients for Clover. This is expected to continue as three more key customers have secured CFDA approval to market and sell their infant formula brands in China. Another key factor driving earnings growth was the decision to invest in their own production machinery, rather than renting, this lowered the cost of goods and as a result boosted margins for Clover.
The current 12-month trailing EV/EBITDA ratio of 29.5 tells us Clover is expensive compared to 11.7x for global equities. This high valuation premium is naturally a key risk.