Best Blue Chip: Altria

In the spirit of the Winter Olympics, which start Friday in Torino, Italy, The Motley Fool is pitting companies against one another. The writers will outline why their company is the best, and our very own panel of judges will decide the winner after a period of deliberation. Stay tuned for more!

Altria (NYSE: MO  ) is stacked up against some serious competition in this contest. General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) is certainly a venerable blue chip, and the only remaining original Dow component. ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) has been reporting quarterly earnings numbers that have never been seen before. This is heady stuff.

Certainly there are those who feel that Altria doesn't deserve a spot as the bluest of the blue chips, because many people have problems with the tobacco products that the company sells. I can understand that stance, although it's not one I'm willing to take.

In my book, being a blue chip means long-term performance. That means rewarding shareholders not for months, or even a few years, but for decades. That, folks, is exactly what Altria has done. In fact, according to Jeremy Siegel's recent book, The Future for Investors, no company from 1957's original S&P 500 returned more to shareholders than Altria did through 2003, with an annual return of 19.75% (link opens PDF file).

What's more interesting is understanding why Altria performed so much better for investors than many of the other blue chips out there. There are two parts to this equation. The first is low expectations, which are reflected by the company's historically low P/E multiple and other valuation metrics such as price-to-free cash flow. The other part of the equation is that Altria averaged a 4.07% dividend yield from 1957 to 2003. That dividend allowed investors to reinvest in more shares, which enhances the gains that shareholders receive over time.

Ahh, but we're in 2006 now, not 2003. Good point. But of the top 20 performers on Siegel's list, there is only one company that is also in this competition: Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) . Good 'ol Coca-Cola's returns are also quite amazing over the studied 46-year period, at 16.02% per year, but its performance hasn'toutpaced that of Altria even over the last two- or five-year periods, let alone a 46-year span.

Today, Altria yields 4.5%, and I think it is valued more reasonably than has often been the case in the past. However, among the other blue chips in this competition, I have a tough time making an argument that any of them are substantially undervalued, and one could argue that ExxonMobil is actually overvalued. Currently, there's no value opportunity in the Dow index even close to that presented by McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) back in March 2003. Nevertheless, I think Altria, love it or hate it, is currently the best value available in this blue chip round-up.

More on the battle of the blue chips:

If you're interested in finding reasonably valued stock ideas that pay healthy dividends, consider taking a free trial ofMotley Fool Income Investor. You'll get access to all past issues, the just-released mid-month update, and our message boards, where subscribers discuss the picks and other potential investing ideas. To learn more, click here.

NathanParmelee has no financial stake in any of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.

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