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Can Altria Withstand a Second COVID-19 Market Rout?

By Rich Duprey - Updated Aug 14, 2020 at 11:18AM

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The first wave helped boost cigarette sales, and then that faded. A second outbreak might not produce the same gains.

You would expect Altria Group (MO -0.34%) 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?

Hand stubbing out cigarette into ashtray

Image source: Getty Images.

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.

On the other hand, Philip Morris International's (PM -0.41%) IQOS heated tobacco device got a boost when the FDA granted it a reduced-risk label, which should give it a competitive advantage. 

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.

Rich Duprey owns shares of Altria Group. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

Altria Group, Inc. Stock Quote
Altria Group, Inc.
MO
$44.10 (-0.34%) $0.15
Philip Morris International Inc. Stock Quote
Philip Morris International Inc.
PM
$97.60 (-0.41%) $0.40

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