Although Altria (NYSE:MO) said today that it intends to convert the nonvoting shares it owns in Juul Labs into voting shares, it will remain a passive investor in the electronic-cigarette maker and not seek to elect directors to the board or exercise other rights it would have as an activist investor. At least not anytime soon.
Leaving open the potential for future action, the tobacco giant used wiggle words like "currently intend" and "pending the outcome of the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) litigation," referring to the regulatory agency's attempt to unwind its investment in Juul.
Altria invested $12.8 billion in Juul in 2018 and received a 35% share in the e-cig maker in return. Yet the investment has gone south since then, as the Food and Drug Administration lobbed broadsides at Juul for its purported role in fueling what it called an "epidemic" in teenagers' use of e-cigs.
Tighter regulations were imposed on e-cig sales to limit access by teens, as well as eliminating the sale of flavors other than tobacco or menthol. However, adult consumers also prefer flavors.
The persistent volleys against Juul by the FDA, and then by the FTC, which began investigating the e-cig maker's marketing practices, caused Altria to write down the value of its investment several times.
Altria's third-quarter earnings report last month indicated the cigarette producer had wiped out almost 90% of its investment's value, reducing it to just $1.6 billion. Juul itself told investors it had cut its valuation to $10 billion from $12 billion.
By converting its stake to voting shares, though, Altria seems to be preparing itself for a future where it will have more of a say in how the e-cig maker is run.