A GM that doesn't need a bailout

General Motors may need cash soon to avoid bankruptcy but cereal king General Mills is thriving in a weak economy. Is this other GM still worth buying?

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By Paul R. La Monica, CNNMoney.com editor at large

Wheaties maker General Mills is one of only a few stocks in the S&P 500 that's up this year.
New! Improved! Profit margins! New! Improved! Profit margins! New! Improved! Profit margins!
At General Mills, the maker of Cheerios, cost-cutting is a way of life: Company execs meet weekly to discuss ways to streamline products. The company's Holistic Margin Management system has helped them sustain higher margins than their peers.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- GM is one of the few stocks in the S&P 500 that is up this year. You read that right.

But wait. I'm not referring to General Motors (GM, Fortune 500). I'm talking about General Mills (GIS, Fortune 500), the food giant. You've heard of it: It's the one that makes Cheerios and Wheaties, the Progresso brand of soups and Green Giant line of frozen vegetables.

Shares of General Mills are up 7%. That makes it one of only 16 stocks in the S&P 500 in the black. And shares are up for good reason.

The company is a classic defensive opportunity in a gruesome economy. People still have to eat!

Even though consumers have been cutting back across the board, General Mills has managed to eke out healthy increases in sales and profits this year.

General Mills will report its fiscal second-quarter results on Wednesday morning. Analysts expect an 8% increase in sales and earnings per share for the three months ending in November.

And for General Mills' full fiscal year, which ends next May, analysts are forecasting a profit increase of nearly 11%.

So is General Mills still a good bargain? After all, it's not the only food company out there. But it is the only one having a banner year in this bear market, which might lead some investors to worry if it's too pricey.

Shares of Kraft Foods (KFT, Fortune 500), which was added to the Dow Jones industrial average earlier this year, and cereal rival Kellogg (K, Fortune 500) are both down almost 20%. And ConAgra Foods (CAG, Fortune 500), which makes the Chef Boyardee, Hebrew National and Hunt's brand of foods, has plunged nearly 40%.

But ConAgra, which will also report its latest results Wednesday, is expected to be hit by rising commodities costs and tougher competition from the likes of General Mills and others. ConAgra lowered its fiscal 2009 outlook in September as a result.

So part of the success of General Mills is due to taking market share from rivals, which helps explain why the stock has outperformed other food makers.

General Mills also has a reputation for a tight control on costs, something that my colleague at Fortune, Mina Kimes, explored in a recent issue. That means it's unlikely to get faced with a hit to its profit margins in the same manner that ConAgra is.

In addition, even though shares are up this year, General Mills trades for just 15 times fiscal 2009 earnings estimates. That represents only a slight premium to Kellogg and Kraft, which each trade around 14 times earnings estimates for this fiscal year.

General Mills also pays a dividend that yields an attractive 2.8% -- higher than what you'd get from a U.S. 10-year Treasury note.

And unlike that other GM, General Mills probably won't need to suspend its dividend because of a cash crunch. To top of page

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