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Admit it: You either love Altria Group (NYSE: MO ) , or you've considered protesting at its headquarters. It's hard to think of another major company so prone to public criticism -- perhaps for good reason. If you're ideologically opposed to owning a cigarette company, Altria obviously isn't for you. But if you're like me and can own the stock while still managing to see your reflection in the mirror, I'd go so far as to tag the company as one of the best stocks to own for 2009. Here's why.
Recession? What recession?
Predicting macroeconomic events is usually a waste of time, but one trend seems pretty clear these days: Consumer confidence will have at least one foot in the grave for quite a while. When the economy flatlines and everyone slams their wallets shut, consumer-based companies that provide anything less than the bare essentials get rocked. Look no further than Sears Holdings (Nasdaq: SHLD ) or Tiffany (NYSE: TIF ) for proof. Altria, on the other hand, is one of the rare consumer stocks that is able to hold its ground come rain or shine, hell or high water, recession or no recession. In fact, Altria's Philip Morris USA was able to actually raise prices last week -- pretty impressive in this economy.
And let's be honest, "holding your ground" is about all you can ask for these days. When the big argument surrounding the fate of the economy is whether we're in a depression or merely a recession, and the market is avoiding risk like the plague, you'd be wise to forget about the prospects of gangbusters growth and hang your hat on something a little more dependable: dividend yields, and their sustainability.
Altria's a champion in both areas. After spinning off Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM ) and Kraft (NYSE: KFT ) in recent years, what's left is essentially an old, stalwart, domestic tobacco business that's about as no-frills and unflattering as it gets. Add in many investors’ moral hesitation about owning the stock, and you’ll find shares have been pushed down to levels that provide an 8.4% dividend yield. And don't kid yourself: With the long-term average return of the S&P 500 at roughly 9%, and "risk-free" treasury bills recently guaranteeing negative returns, 8.4% is nothing to sneeze at.
But is it safe?
The big question is whether Altria can weather the economic storm well enough to keep that dividend going. After all, stocks like Citigroup (NYSE: C ) and Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) might have looked like dividend bonanzas before cutting their payouts.
The good news is that Altria has not only paid, but raised its dividend every year in the last decade -- the only exception being lowered payouts resulting from spin-offs. It's tough to make apples-to-apples historical comparisons, since Altria has divested so many subsidiaries, but the bottom line is tough to refute: The cigarette industry is a virtually unshakable cash cow. Even if the company were to slash its dividend by a significant amount, you'd probably still come out with higher risk-adjusted returns than almost anywhere else in the market.
All of this dividend talk begs the question: Am I suggesting an 8.4% annual yield is really worth drooling over in a market littered with so many bargains? The answer is an unequivocal "yes." There's a good chance some big-name stocks could post multibagger returns next year, but there's also a chance the recent market meltdown is just the beginning. A few months back, I took a look at how low stocks fell in other historical periods of pain. I hate to say it, but it's quite a bit lower than we're at today. When you consider the uncertainty of markets today, compared to Altria's near stranglehold on the U.S. tobacco market, its history of uninterrupted payouts, and the prospect of being in a potentially "recession-proof" industry, a stable 8.4% dividend looks pretty darn attractive to me.
Our Motley Fool CAPS community agrees, tagging Altria with a perfect five-star rating. In fact, 97% of investors who've rated this stock tag it as an "outperform." To cast your own vote, or to see what more than 120,000 other investors are saying about Altria and thousands of other stocks, click here. It won't cost you a dime.
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