Altria Group (NYSE: MO ) will announce its second-quarter earnings results before market open on Tuesday, July 22. The earnings release and conference call should provide updates on a handful of important matters facing the company this year. Among the issues to watch are the MarkTen e-cigarette rollout, cigarette volumes, and capital allocation decisions. However, the most interesting comments will probably be about the recently announced Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI ) and Lorillard (NYSE: LO.DL ) merger, the outcome of which could have a huge effect on Altria going forward.
No. 2 and No. 3 merge to compete with Altria
Long rumored to be in merger talks, Reynolds American finally announced that it will acquire Lorillard in a $27.4 billion transaction. The deal validates months of speculation that the No. 2 and No. 3 tobacco companies would merge to create a formidable competitor to Altria. However, before divestments made to satisfy antitrust regulators, the combined company's 42% share of the cigarette market is still below Altria's 50.7% cigarette share -- and even below its Marlboro brand's 43.8% share.
Moreover, it is not clear that the merger poses a meaningful threat to Altria. Reynolds and Lorillard already have economies of scale in production and distribution, and smokers tend to stick with the same premium brand, so the impact on Altria is uncertain. Investors should expect management to spend time discussing the merger on Altria's upcoming conference call. If the merger poses a real threat to Altria's business, this will likely come out during the call.
The other hot item on the agenda is the MarkTen nationwide rollout, which began in June. Although financial results will not be included in second-quarter earnings, management will probably give hints about how the e-cigarette rollout is going. Also look for comments on the company's plans for Green Smoke, an online retailer of premium e-vapor products that Altria acquired in a transaction that closed last month. MarkTen and Green Smoke are the components of Altria's plan to dominate the fast-growing e-cigarette market, so investors will want to hear good news about both of these subsidiaries.
Smokeable and smokeless volumes
All tobacco investors should keep a close eye on cigarette volumes. Altria's premium brands allow it to grow earnings despite declining volumes, but an accelerating decline in cigarette volumes would put a damper on profit growth. Cigarette volume declined 4%, 0%, and 4% in 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively. Altria's cigarette shipments declined 3.5% in the first quarter of 2014. If Altria reports a decline of 3% or better, then the cigarette market may be hitting a floor -- a fantastic development for Altria investors.
Although it's not nearly as important as cigarette volumes, investors may be interested to see what effect, if any, Hall of Fame outfielder Tony Gwynn's death has on smokeless products. Although Gwynn's death occurred after Altria's second quarter ended, management may have insight into new restrictions in the works on smokeless products. Major League Baseball players' rampant use of chewing tobacco on the field provides free advertising for the category; if MLB decides to ban on-field tobacco use, it could be detrimental to Altria's smokeless segment.
Capital allocation and strategic decisions
Finally, investors should keep an eye out for a change in capital allocation. The company may liquidate a large stockholding to free up cash for dividends and share repurchases, but others argue that the company will retain its holding for tax and capital appreciation reasons. In any case, Altria's optionality with regard to capital allocation provides management with flexibility in creating shareholder value. Investors should keep their eyes open for exactly how management plans to unlock Altria's full value.
The Reynolds-Lorillard merger and MarkTen e-cigarette rollout are the two most exciting topics that are bound to be discussed on Altria's second-quarter conference call. Neither item is reflected in second-quarter financial statements, but management's commentary may provide important insights for Altria investors. Moreover, investors should continue monitoring cigarette shipments -- adjusted for inventories -- and capital allocation. Both are important drivers of Altria's long-term value -- and are the difference between a good investment and a great investment. Let's hope it's the latter.
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