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Altria Boosts Buybacks as Regulation Looms

By Dan Caplinger - Jul 31, 2017 at 1:20PM

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The tobacco giant reported weak earnings, but the big question is what's coming from the FDA.

The tobacco industry has faced challenges for decades, and Altria Group (MO 0.04%) has always charted a course through rough waters to find smooth sailing beyond. By using its pricing power and customer loyalty, Altria has managed to keep sales and profits rising over time even as a secular decline in smoking has seemed to threaten its long-term business.

Coming into the second-quarter financial report, Altria investors had wanted to see substantial gains in earnings amid modest top-line growth. The cigarette giant's revenue came in better than expected, but bottom-line increases were muted at best. Moreover, an announcement after the report came out created fear among investors about the company's future. Let's take a closer look at Altria and what its latest results say about the future for the business.

Altria sign with logo.

Image source: Altria.

Altria handles crosswinds

Altria's second-quarter results were mixed in most investors' eyes. Revenue net of excise taxes rose nearly 4% to $5.07 billion, which was better than the $5.02 billion consensus forecast among those following the stock. On the bottom line, Altria posted net income of $1.99 billion, which was higher by 20% from the year-ago quarter. Yet adjusted earnings of $0.85 per share weren't as strong as investors had wanted to see, despite being up about 5% from the previous year.

Looking more closely at Altria's numbers, the smokeable products unit saw solid gains. Revenue net of excise tax was up 3%, sending adjusted operating company income higher by 6%. The rise came despite the implementation of a large cigarette excise tax in California, which was a big part of why Altria's domestic cigarette shipment volumes were down almost 3%. The key Marlboro brand also saw volumes drop 3%, leading to a slight drop in overall market share. Altria's total cigarette share declined to 50.8% during the period.

The smokeless products segment rebounded from a tough quarter, with revenue gains of 8% and a 10% rise in adjusted operating company income. After suffering from a product recall during the first quarter of 2017, this quarter's domestic shipping volume of smokeless products rose 1.4%. The Copenhagen brand continued to benefit at Skoal's expense, but the recall seemed to have a lasting impact on market share, which fell nearly a full percentage point to 54.1% for the unit as a whole.

Finally, the wine business stayed under pressure. Sales were down 12% and adjusted operating company income plunged by nearly a third. Shipment volumes were down 15%, simply reflecting weaker demand in the marketplace.

CEO Marty Barrington was upbeat about the tobacco giant. "Based on strong tobacco operating company performance," Barrington said, "Altria delivered solid results in the second quarter." The CEO noted how the business continued to remain strong fundamentally despite the near-term issues that Altria has faced.

Can Altria grow faster?

Altria also sees growth continuing in the future. The company reaffirmed its calls for adjusted earnings to rise between 7.5% and 9.5% for the 2017 year as a whole, with expectations of stronger bottom-line growth in the second half than it has seen thus far.

The other big news came on the capital allocation front. Altria announced that it would expand its stock buyback program, authorizing a new $1 billion expansion to add to its existing authorization. The tobacco giant bought back $1.05 billion in stock during the second quarter, supplementing the nearly $1.2 billion in dividends that shareholders received over the same time frame. Altria expects to complete its buybacks by mid-2018, but it could easy add more money to the program in the interim.

Yet the key issue that Altria will face became known after the report. The Food and Drug Administration has said that it wants to regulate the amount of nicotine that U.S. cigarette producers put in their products. It's not immediately clear exactly how Altria and its peers would accomplish that task, although Altria did issue a press release welcoming further dialogue with regulators and expressing hope that any new restrictions would be supported by scientific evidence.

Altria investors were reasonably content about the report, but the news of the FDA restrictions sent the stock down sharply on Friday, bringing net losses for shareholders over Thursday and Friday to almost 7%. Until more is known about what it would take to comply with new nicotine regulations, Altria shareholders will have to be prepared for volatility as they try to figure out exactly what impact the company will see going forward.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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