Tobacco giant Altria Group (NYSE:MO) has had to deal with long-term trends toward lower sales, as both regulatory hurdles and a general movement away from smoking have weighed on cigarette volume over the years. Coming into Friday morning's fourth-quarter earnings report, Altria shareholders were looking for at least a temporary respite from that trend, and the company delivered modest but substantial revenue growth during the quarter.
Still, Altria could not satisfy investors with its bottom-line results, and nervous shareholders will want reassurance the tobacco company can keep earnings moving higher at a sufficient pace to sustain long-term dividend growth. Let's take a closer look at how Altria did in the fourth quarter and what it means for 2015 and beyond.
Altria closes a solid year
The tobacco company's fourth-quarter results represented a fitting close to another reasonably good year. Quarterly net revenue rose 2.9% from year-ago levels, with declines in excise taxes and costs of sales pushing gross profits up an even more impressive 9%. That resulted in a massive increase in net income, with earnings per share more than doubling to $0.63. Yet most of that gain was a result of a $1.08 billion one-time expense Altria took last year when it paid off some of its debt early; even after allowing for special items, Altria's $0.66 per share in adjusted earnings fell short of what investors had wanted. Nevertheless, for the full year, the company boasted an overall earnings-per-share gain of 8% on net-revenue gain of 0.2%, showing its ability to handle tepid sales trends with profit-enhancing moves.
Looking at Altria's various segments, the company's perseverance in the smokeable products line remained intact. Cigarette volumes showed the same trend as the previous quarter, falling 1.7% overall as a decline in sales of Marlboro and other premium brands outweighed a 5.2% gain in sales of Altria's discount-cigarette lines. Thanks to higher pricing and an end to certain payments to the federal government, revenue net of excise taxes jumped 3.3%, and operating income gained an impressive 7.6%. For the year, a 2% rise in revenue net of excise taxes and a 6.7% jump in adjusted operating income gave Altria solid success in the segment.
Even more encouraging, Altria's smokeless products segment reversed its weakness from the prior quarter and showed modest growth. Revenue climbed 4%, with shipment volume climbing 1% and price increases also helping. Still, with rising costs for promotional spending, operating company income for the segment remained flat, capping a year in which the smokeless division's profit rose 3.7%.
As investors have come to expect, Altria's other segments were strong. Wine revenue jumped more than 8%, reflecting a volume increase of nearly 10%, and the segment's operating income soared by almost 18% for the quarter and 13.6% for the year.
CEO Marty Barrington had good things to say about Altria's results. "Our business results were anchored by a very strong performance in the smokeable products segment," Barrington said, "complemented by contributions from our diverse business model." With Altria putting in another year of solid performance, Barrington believes the company treated shareholders very well in 2014.
What's next for Altria?
Even with the company's strong results, investors won't necessarily be satisfied with Altria's guidance for 2015. The company projected adjusted earnings per share within a range of $2.75 to $2.80 for the year, which is slightly on the low side of what investors had foreseen. Altria seems satisfied with the 7% to 9% growth rate that those figures suggest, and these numbers are indeed consistent with the 8.3% dividend increase the company gave shareholders last year. With the company targeting an 80% dividend payout ratio, growth in Altria earnings should directly lead to greater income for investors.
One big question is whether Altria's push into the e-vapor category will pay off. With its national launch of MarkTen, customers can now buy the cigarette alternative in more than 130,000 stores nationwide. Yet despite its ranking among the top brands in the country, MarkTen still has a long way to go before demonstrating its ability to make a marked impact on Altria's overall results.
Still, long-term investors will likely shake off any short-term concerns about Altria's minor earnings miss and continue to rely on the company's uncanny ability to squeeze more profit from falling volume. With market share largely remaining intact, Altria could keep giving shareholders substantial rewards well into the future.