Investors count on Altria Group (NYSE:MO) to find ways quarter after quarter to boost its profits. That's a tall order for a company under attack on multiple fronts, with regulators, consumer advocates, and competitors all seeking to take down the tobacco giant. Yet coming into Wednesday's fourth-quarter financial report, Altria investors again had high hopes that the company would at least manage to keep its bottom line flat compared to year-ago levels, and the Marlboro maker actually surpassed those hopes. Nevertheless, some were disappointed about Altria's guidance for the coming year. Let's take a closer look at Altria's results and what they say about its future.
Altria holds its momentum
Altria's fourth-quarter results didn't include any huge surprises. Revenue net of excise taxes managed to eke out a 0.1% gain to $4.73 billion, which was actually slightly less than the $4.8 billion figure that most investors were expecting. Net income soared as a result of gains related to the merger of SABMiller and Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE:BUD), jumping to $10.28 billion for the quarter. Even after taking out that one-time benefit, adjusted earnings of $0.68 per share were $0.01 higher than the consensus forecast among those following the stock.
Taking a closer look at Altria's various businesses, much of the downward pressure on revenue came from the smokeable products segment. Revenue net of excise tax fell nearly 1%, although the company managed to boost segment profit by nearly 4% on an adjusted basis. High pricing managed to offset some of the sales declines, but the key issue was the drop in volume. Altria suffered a nearly 5% decline in sales volume during the quarter, in part because of the general decline in demand and in part from the fact that there was one less shipping day than in the year-ago quarter. Even adjusting for the calendar, Altria saw an adjusted volume drop of 3.5%, which it sees as in line with the industry overall. Market share was unchanged at 51.4%, with Marlboro seeing flat performance as well.
Altria's smokeless products segment fared somewhat better. Sales jumped nearly 8% net of excise tax, and after taking out asset impairment and other extraordinary items, adjusted operating company gained 4%. Copenhagen's popularity helped sent volume up more than 2% for the quarter, and Altria added nearly a full percentage point to its market share in the industry, weighing in at 55.8%.
Altria's wine business was the best performer of all, even though it's also the smallest. Revenue was up 8%, and adjusted profit soared 16% on 4% shipment growth and strong results from its core premium wine brands.
CEO Marty Barrington was succinct in his praise for his company. "Altria had another outstanding year," Barrington said, and the CEO pointed to the stock's return of more than 20%, its rising dividend, and the successful conclusion of the Anheuser-Busch InBev deal with SABMiller as important highlights of 2016.
Can Altria keep climbing higher?
However, Altria's guidance for 2017 didn't fully live up to the expectations that investors had coming into the report. The tobacco giant's forecast includes adjusted earnings for the full year of between $3.26 and $3.32 per share, which was a bit lower than the $3.33 per share that represented the consensus forecast among those following the stock. The guidance calls for growth of 7.5% to 9.5% compared to where adjusted earnings finished 2016, but investors have hoped that the company would be able to get closer to the 10% growth mark.
One thing that will be interesting to see going forward is the impact that Anheuser-Busch will have on its earnings. The beer maker's results won't show up in Altria's financials until the first quarter of 2017, with a one-quarter lag applying to earnings. Nevertheless, Altria expects that A-B InBev's contributions to profits will be significant and show the value of the diversification that it provides.
Altria investors reacted negatively to the news, sending the stock more than 2% in pre-market trading following the announcement. The company's long-term growth story appears to be intact, but shareholders will have to see whether it can sustain the full momentum it has generated -- or whether Altria will start to see its pace of growth slide going forward.