You would expect Altria Group (NYSE:MO) to have fared well during the coronavirus pandemic. Not only are cigarette stocks typically considered recession-resistant, but the increased worry and hardship brought on by the crisis should boosted sales.
Although that has largely proved true for Altria, which saw revenue excluding excise taxes rise 5.5% in the first half of 2020, shares of the Marlboro brand owner are down almost 15% year to date and at one point were down more than 40%.
If the fall flu season causes COVID-19 to come back with a vengeance, can Altria withstand the impact?
Smoke 'em if you got 'em
First-quarter sales surged 16% as smokers stocked up on cigarettes, but they fell 4% in the second quarter. And upon reinstating guidance, Altria forecast full-year earnings will be flat to up 4% from last year, a significant pullback from its prior guidance of a 4% to 7% rise.
More troubling is its investment in electronic cigarette maker Juul Labs, which continues to be the subject of close regulatory scrutiny. After Altria wrote off almost two-thirds of its investment in the popular e-cig device maker, the U.S. government still wants to unwind the deal, and despite Juul having submitted its pre-market tobacco product application for review, it's still doubtful it will be approved.
While a second wave of COVID-19 likely won't benefit Altria, and Juul's woes say still weigh heavily, IQOS may actually become the major e-cig growth story, meaning the tobacco stock's pursuit of a dual track for cigarette alternatives should let it come out on top.