Coca-Cola vs. Altria: Altria

In the competitive spirit of college basketball's annual championship tournament, The Motley Fool brings you Stock Madness 2007! Our writers are making head-to-head arguments for their chosen stocks (but not necessarily investment recommendations -- this is, after all, a game), and you'll pick the winners with your article recommendations and Motley Fool CAPS ratings. Who will win the right to cut down the net? Let's tip things off and find out!

Think of Altria (NYSE: MO  ) as a champion with a chip on its shoulder.

There's no disputing that Altria has been a great stock to own over the years. Year after year, its shares have risen to new heights, with a nearly 20% increase over the past year. Those gains sit atop a dividend yield that's still among the Dow's highest. From a fundamental perspective, Altria's sales volumes continue to expand, and the company has done a great job of cutting expenses to keep bottom-line growth at a nice clip.

Big MO is a big crowd favorite, too. It's on the top 20 list for most recommended stocks on Motley Fool CAPS, and nearly 97% of those recommendations are positive -- the highest winning percentage you'll find in CAPS' top 20.

But for all the success it's brought to shareholders, Altria still has trouble with its reputation. Some investors are uncomfortable with making money off tobacco users. Yet you don't see many people shying away from businesses that serve other kinds of popular products, from caffeine-pusher Starbucks (Nasdaq: SBUX  ) to suds-supplier Anheuser-Busch (NYSE: BUD  ) . Admittedly, Big MO faces constant legal challenges that companies in other industries see much less often, but few other industries can boast the tobacco companies' successful track record in litigation. Nevertheless, MO shareholders often feel obligated to rationalize their ownership.

But at long last, Altria is moving past its bad reputation and returning to its roots. With the upcoming spinoff of its remaining holdings of food giant Kraft (NYSE: KFT  ) , MO will be free to focus on its core tobacco business. As part of a long-awaited breakup strategy, Altria shareholders will receive about 0.7 shares of Kraft for every MO share they hold. Although the company hasn't made any definitive plans, the next step may be to separate the Philip Morris international division from Altria's domestic tobacco business. This move would go far toward persuading investors that regardless of potential liability issues, Altria is here to stay.

Once it gets that chip off its shoulder, Altria should start getting the respect from mainstream investors that its strong financial results deserve. In the meantime, though, current shareholders have been well-rewarded, and the best may well be yet to come.

Keep Big MO moving on to the next round by following this link to Motley Fool CAPS and ranking the stock "outperform." If you think it should go up in smoke, give it an "underperform." In a few days, we'll count up your votes to determine which stocks will advance one step closer to the title.

Read our opposing article on Coca-Cola, or see all the entries in the tournament.

Think you could pitch your favorite stock -- or ditch your least favorite one -- in 27 seconds or less? That's what we're doing over at Motley Fool CAPS. Check out our new stock videos.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has been a Big MO shareholder for a long time. He also owns shares of Starbucks, a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Kraft is an Income Investor selection, while Anheuser-Busch made our list at Inside Value. The Fool's disclosure policy is never maddening.


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