It's been an interesting quarter for Altria Group (NYSE:MO). After having gone for years successfully defending its core cigarette business from the ongoing slide in customer demand, Altria made two bold moves to shore up its growth prospects. The $1.8 billion investment in marijuana producer Cronos Group (NASDAQ:CRON) got the most attention from cannabis investors, but the $13 billion it spent to acquire a minority stake in e-cigarette leader JUUL Labs was an even bigger play on making the most of opportunities in the alternative-products space.
Coming into Thursday's fourth-quarter financial report, Altria investors expected typically modest gains in sales and earnings. The tobacco giant's results were roughly in line with those expectations, but far more important were the comments that Altria executives made about the strategic moves and their impact on the company's long-term future.
The latest from Altria's core businesses
Altria's fourth-quarter results reflected the relatively low growth that the company's been able to achieve lately. Revenue net of excise tax was up just 1.5% to $4.79 billion, falling a bit short of the $4.81 billion that most of those following the stock were expecting to see. Adjusted net income climbed just over 2% to $1.79 billion, and that worked out to adjusted earnings of $0.85 per share, matching the consensus forecast among investors.
Altria's segments showed relatively stable performance compared to recent periods. The smokeable products segment saw a 1.9% rise in revenue net of excise tax, with adjusted operating company income also rising about 2%. Cigarette shipment volumes were down 4.4%, accelerating from their rate of decline in the third quarter, but higher pricing and reduced spending on promotional efforts helped to shield the unit's financial results from the full brunt of the volume decrease. However, market share continued to suffer, and for the first time in a long time, Altria's overall share fell below the 50% mark. Marlboro held up relatively strong, but a half-percentage-point drop in Altria's discount brand market share took the figure down 0.6 percentage points to 49.8%.
Altria's wine business was especially weak. Revenue dropped 11%, and adjusted operating company income got cut in half as shipment volumes were down fully 15% from year-earlier levels.
What's new at Altria?
CEO Howard Willard celebrated the company's balanced approach. "[Altria domestic cigarette subsidiary Philip Morris USA] stabilized Marlboro and strengthened our combustible business," Willard said, and "we also took proactive steps that we believe uniquely position us for long-term success. Altria enters 2019 with an evolved business platform that includes our strong core tobacco businesses and new strategic investments with tremendous potential for growth."
Altria is pushing ahead with those key strategic measures. On the Cronos investment, Altria said that it's optimistic that shareholders will approve the purchase at a vote in February, and it's working on filing an antitrust review application on the JUUL Labs acquisition shortly. From a financial perspective, Altria isn't forecasting any appreciable impact on earnings from Cronos or JUUL, but it is hopeful that the company will be able to move forward with plans to market the IQOS heated-tobacco system upon receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In terms of guidance, Altria was fairly consistent with what most of those following the tobacco giant had expected. Full-year 2019 adjusted earnings should be between $4.15 and $4.27 per share, up 4% to 7% from 2018 levels. It expects reduced dividends from its investment in Anheuser-Busch Inbev (NYSE:BUD), as well as higher interest expense from the debt associated with its acquisitions. Yet with projections that the overall domestic cigarette industry will suffer another 3.5% to 5% drop in volume in 2019, Altria seems fairly optimistic about its ability to keep doing what it's done to shore up its financial strength.
Altria shareholders seemed happy with the way things are going, and the stock rose 3% on Thursday following the morning announcement. With JUUL and Cronos in its stable of companies, Altria has shown its determination to keep growing, and it'll be interesting to see how those investments pan out over the long run.