Investors know the strong reputation that Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM) has, with its nearly 5% dividend yield and its resilient tobacco business providing consistent and predictable profit growth over time. Recently, Philip Morris has struggled to keep earnings growing because of the plunge of many major foreign currencies, especially the euro and the Japanese yen. Still, company executives remain confident that Philip Morris in on the right track and can continue to produce the results that its shareholders have come to expect. Let's take a closer look at five of the highlights from the conference call that Philip Morris gave after its most recent quarterly report.
"Even in markets where Marlboro has a little bit of share pressure within a premium segment, Marlboro actually is performing very strong and is gaining share."-- CFO Jacek Olczak
Philip Morris has long relied on the Marlboro brand, which is its key asset and represents a huge portion of its overall sales. Even though the company has also looked to develop other premium brands, it's clear that Marlboro will continue to be the foundation on which Philip Morris grows its cigarette business. With the ongoing rollout of its Marlboro 2.0 architecture, Philip Morris is working hard to make sure that it considers changes in demographics and other factors within the tobacco giant's many international markets in deciding optimal selling strategy. So far, those efforts have been helpful, and Olczak believes that they should continue to bolster overall results in the long run.
"[Pricing] might come in slightly above the historical average. ... The overall pricing environment, with the tax and the total industry volume, I think are playing on our side. So yes, we're looking for strong pricing for this year."-- Olczak
Philip Morris International has seen long-term trends toward reduced cigarette shipment volumes, as the ranks of smokers in more regions of the world start to shrink. In response, Philip Morris has used its pricing power to ensure that its revenue and profits can climb even with lower sales volumes, and that strategy has worked to perfection so far. With the company expecting macroeconomic factors to support its efforts to keep pushing cigarette prices higher where appropriate, it believes that its profit growth could become even more impressive in the near future.
"I think we're moving slowly into making the reduced exposure claims, and this is also the result of six short-term clinical studies, which have been completed as per plan. The study results show a substantial reduction in the relevant biomarkers of exposure in adult consumers who switched to iQOS."--Olczak
Reduced-risk products are part of Philip Morris International's vision of the future, and one of the primary selling points for products like the iQOS smokeless heat-not-burn alternative to traditional cigarettes is the idea that they could have fewer health risks. Olczak reflected the company's wish to be conservative in discussing the results of clinical studies, but he nevertheless thinks that reduced-exposure claims are gaining increasing support. Reduced-risk claims, on the other hand, will likely take at least another year, but Philip Morris clearly wants to make progress on that front as well.
"If we're looking into a sustainable share buyback program, we clearly have to go back to what took us out of the share buyback program currently. And that's clearly this big headwind which we get from the currency." -- Olczak
Shareholders have counted on Philip Morris to treat them right when it comes to returning capital, and the company has largely delivered. Yet after buybacks in 2014 that amounted to almost $4 billion, Philip Morris has suspended share repurchases this year. Olczak explained that because of the adverse moves in foreign currency in response to the dollar's strength, Philip Morris finds itself with "credit metrics at the edge of our current credit rating," and in order to preserve its access to capital from the credit markets, the company doesn't want to endanger its rating simply to keep up a buyback program. Once currencies improve, though, Philip Morris could easily start buying back shares again.
"We've had an existing agreement with Altria on the current generation of e-cigarette products. ... This [extended] agreement essentially will take both companies focused behind the new generation of e-cigarette."-- Olczak
Philip Morris has maintained a solid relationship with former parent Altria Group, andthe two companies announced that they had extended their collaboration in order to work further on e-cigarettes and other tobacco alternatives. As Olczak sees it, Altria brings substantial knowledge of existing products as well as its own research and discoveries, potentially complementing Philip Morris International's knowledge. If the two companies can work together to build out this key market, then both Philip Morris and Altria could see big share-price benefits.
Philip Morris has survived well even in a tough environment for the international tobacco specialist. The optimism and initiative that Philip Morris executives have shown bodes well for the stock's long-term prospects, as the company is well-poised to meet challenges head-on and find solutions that should result in more profits over the long run.