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5 Things Altria Group Management Wants You to Know

By Dan Caplinger - Sep 3, 2015 at 8:38PM

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Even as the market swoons, the tobacco giant is holding up well. Find out what executives like about Altria's future.

Source: Altria Group.

The recent market swoon has made many investors nervous about the stock market in general, but tobacco giant Altria Group (MO 0.00%) has thus far avoided giving in to the negative sentiment among rank-and-file investors. With solid growth prospects and a loyal customer base, Altria combines an attractive dividend yield with the potential for further income increases in the future. In particular, Altria executives are optimistic about the company's long-term prospects, and in its most recent conference call, Altria highlighted some of its biggest opportunities looking forward.

Let's take a closer look at some of the most important components of Altria's success that executives are focusing on right now.

When adjusted for trade inventory changes and other factors, [Philip Morris USA] estimates its volume grew approximately 1% in the second quarter. [...] An improvement in the industry's rate of volume decline and retail share gains, supported by relatively low gas prices and an improving economy, drove PM USA's strong volume performance. -- CEO Marty Barrington

The tobacco industry has gotten used to a long-term trend of declining cigarette volume, as the rush of smokers choosing to quit and the difficulty that many remaining smokers have in paying ever-rising prices for tobacco products has eaten into demand over the long run.

More recently, though, economic conditions and other factors have put consumers in a stronger economic position, and Altria has seen that play out in its key cigarette business. The Marlboro brand saw retail market share grow three-tenths of a percentage point in the second quarter as Altria has done even better than the overall industry in capturing more of the tobacco market. Combined with favorable numbers in smokeless tobacco, Altria is taking advantage of greater disposable income among U.S. customers.

L&M is consolidating share in the declining discount segment. That segment goes down, which of course for us is fine because we're in the premium end of the business. But L&M is a terrific offering for adult tobacco consumers there, and it's picking up share in that segment. -- Barrington

For Altria, Marlboro is the key to the cigarette business' overall success, especially given the way it has been able to keep margins wide even as the company has had to increase retail prices to keep up with excise tax increases in many of its markets.

Yet the emphasis on the high end of the market hasn't stopped Altria from producing strong results with its discount-cigarette offerings, and L&M has done a good job of capturing more of that market. That might not be as important with favorable economic conditions currently prevailing, but if the economy turns downward, having a good presence in the discount market could help offset losses elsewhere.

[W]e expanded our agreement with Philip Morris International to include a joint research, development, and technology sharing agreement. As part of the agreement, Altria and PMI will collaborate to develop e-vapor products for commercialization in the U.S. by Altria and in markets abroad by PMI. -- Barrington

Altria sees the e-cigarette and e-vapor market as a key driver of long-term growth, with its Nu Mark subsidiary having pushed hard to enter key markets and expand its penetration in both tobacco-alternative markets. Yet the collaboration with Philip Morris International (PM 0.65%) arguably has even more potential to improve Altria's position in the niche, especially as it responds to increased competition from Altria's main rival in the domestic tobacco market. Altria hopes the partnership will lead to new and innovative products and a more efficient infrastructure for promoting and marketing those products.

Altria recorded earnings from our SABMiller investment of $225 million in the second quarter and $359 million for the first half. -- CFO Billy Gifford

Altria profits hugely from tobacco, which made up the lion's share of its $1.45 billion in profit for the second quarter. Yet part of Altria's strength is that it also has some non-tobacco-related businesses, including its Ste. Michelle wine business and its investment in beer producer SABMiller. That investment has produced substantial dividends for Altria over time, and the $225 million it brought in this quarter represents more than 15% of Altria's overall profit. While some believe spinning off the SABMiller stake would be more shareholder-friendly, Altria's retention of that stake gives it some diversification that other tobacco companies lack.

The guidance we have now for 2015 is above our long-term growth aspiration of 7% to 9%. Indeed, I think it's the highest that it's been in some period of time. So there's no question that we are having a strong year. -- Barrington

Altria prides itself on reliable results, but things have gone so well in 2015 that its executives are looking to try to rein in any unrealistic expectations going forward. Barrington noted that this year's success will make comparison tougher in 2016, and factors like stabilizing gasoline prices and rising tax rates will inevitably start to eat into Altria's growth. Barrington still sees solid results for the remainder of the year, but they probably won't match the impressive 13% growth from the first half of the year.

Nevertheless, Altria's long-term performance has been exemplary, and 2015 has gone quite well for the company thus far. With so many areas of strength, Altria has the capacity to continue delivering solid results for years to come.

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Stocks Mentioned

Altria Group, Inc. Stock Quote
Altria Group, Inc.
$51.09 (0.00%) $0.00
Philip Morris International Inc. Stock Quote
Philip Morris International Inc.
$101.15 (0.65%) $0.65

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