Pursuing yield can be risky since high dividend yields can often hint at deeper problems with a stock. But not always -- and in some circumstances, the companies allow investors to access stocks with proven track records of delivering profits and returning cash, actually providing an added layer of security.
Altria is cheap and could be undervalued
Jamal Carnette, CFA (Altria): Shares of the cigarette maker have missed this year's rally, falling 3% versus an 18% gain from the S&P 500 and currently yielding 6.4%. That's understandable because the bearish thesis is palpable: Cigarette volumes are declining as older smokers are "aging out" and not being replaced by younger ones. Over the last 50 years, the government has led a fight against smoking -- perhaps the most successful public health campaign ever -- and Altria has been squarely in the crosshairs.
Tobacco stocks received a brief respite when many analysts predicted vaping/e-cigarettes and the quasi-legal marijuana industry could be potential growth markets. Altria went all in, paying $13 billion to take a stake in vaping market-share leader Juul and $1.8 billion for a part of Cronos Growth.
More recently, optimism has tempered for Juul because the government has voiced concerns about e-cigs, with the Food and Drug Administration going as far as calling teen use "an epidemic."
If you're still reading this after these risks, there's a high probability that you're a contrarian value investor. If that's your style, there's a potential opportunity for Altria, starting with the 6.4% yield. Additionally, shares are cheap by traditional metrics: a forward P/E of 11.7, versus 17.9 for the greater S&P 500. If concerns about vaping are overblown or the cannabis industry is moderately successful, it's likely Altria is undervalued.
An outperformer with a juicy yield
John Bromels (BP): Earlier this month, British big-oil company BP hit a milestone of sorts: Its dividend yield surpassed Royal Dutch Shell's for the first time in more than a year! BP currently yields 6% to Shell's 5.9%, which makes BP the top yielder among the oil majors. Which makes this a good time to take a closer look at BP.
Year to date, BP's stock performance has lagged slightly behind Shell's, which is why it was able to overtake its Dutch rival's dividend yield. But BP's financial and operational performance have been quite good recently.
Take the company's Q1 2019: Although revenue was actually down 2.5% from Q1 2018, and oil prices during the quarter were good but not great, BP still managed to boost year-over-year net income by 18.6%, year-over-year EPS by 17.6%, and year-over-year operating cash flow by an impressive 44.9%! This was thanks in large part to disciplined cost-cutting by management and production that increased despite recent divestitures.
In short, BP is firing on all cylinders, and with a now best-in-class dividend in the mix, it is certainly a stock that yield investors should consider.
Still standing tall
Rich Duprey (Philip Morris International): I'm going to agree with my colleague Jamal and say a dividend investor should still consider tobacco stocks despite the regulators and health activists. But while I agree with Jamal's assessment on Altria, I think Philip Morris International might be an even better bet.
PM's wager on the electronic cigarette market isn't facing the same kind of blowback that Altria's Juul e-cig partnership is. In fact, PM's heated tobacco e-cig IQOS just recently got Food and Drug Administration approval to be marketed in the U.S. -- the first e-cig to go through the regulatory labyrinth and successfully come out the other side. And it is still under consideration for a reduced-risk label.
Considering all the hyperbole about e-cigs these days, it seems doubtful the IQOS will earn that designation, but it's quite possible the device will soon have the market almost all to itself. In a few months' time, e-cig makers are going to have to submit their pre-market approval applications to the FDA, and that is a mountain only a select few will be able to climb. PM's application cost millions of dollars to produce, which most companies won't be able to afford.
Even Altria's Juul has a tough road ahead: Former FDA commission Scott Gottlieb recently said he doesn't see how Juul succeeds in getting approved because of its popularity with teens, making it sound like the deck is stacked against it.
Altria will benefit from the IQOS, too, because of the marketing agreement it has with PM to sell the device under its Marlboro brand. But this is PM's only exposure to the volatile U.S. market, and it still has worldwide leadership in cigarettes and e-cigarettes elsewhere around the globe.
At just 14 times projected earnings and a dividend yielding nearly 6%, I find Philip Morris International a long-term winner for income investors.