Tobacco giant Altria Group (NYSE:MO) had an excellent year in 2015, with its shares climbing more than 20% and leaving the broader market's flat performance in the dust. Several positive news items helped push Altria forward in 2015, and a few of them have huge implications for the tobacco company's business in 2016 and beyond. Let's take a closer look at Altria Group's best headlines over the past year.
Anheuser-Busch takes out SABMiller
The biggest news item for Altria during 2015 was Anheuser-Busch InBev's (NYSE:BUD) offer to buy out rival beer-maker SABMiller. The $100 billion-plus deal involves Altria because of the cigarette maker's roughly 27% stake in SABMiller, which has helped it diversify beyond the immense exposure to tobacco that Altria has.
For a while, it seemed as if Altria might try to block the acquisition, as an all-cash offer would have not only taken the company out of the beer business but also generated a huge taxable capital gain. In the end, Anheuser-Busch restructured the deal to give Altria the alternative of taking a sizable stake in the beer giant instead, and although the value of those shares won't be as high as the cash alternative, the continuing exposure to beer is in line with Altria's strategic focus of encapsulating a variety of different businesses under its corporate umbrella. The SABMiller acquisition still has some hurdles to get over, but many are optimistic that through selected divestiture of assets in areas where the combined Anheuser-Busch/SABMiller would have too high a concentration of market share, regulators will be willing to let the deal go through and give Altria a stake in an even more important player in the growing beer industry.
Altria boosts return of capital to shareholders
Investors got good news in two different pieces during the year concerning the company's capital planning. In July, Altria announced a new $1 billion share repurchase program, saying that it had completed the previous $1 billion program and intends to execute further buybacks by the end of 2016. CEO Marty Barrington said that strong performance justified the decision, with rising market share and earnings growth producing more than ample capital to make the move.
The following month, Altria followed through on the second piece of its capital strategy by raising its quarterly dividend by nearly 9%. Shareholders now get $0.565 per share every quarter, and the move raised the tobacco giant's dividend yield above the 4% mark at the time. With 49 dividend increases over the past 46 years, only Altria's spinoffs have prevented it from joining the prestigious ranks of the Dividend Aristocrats and demonstrating its dividend excellence over time.
Expanded partnership on e-vapor
Altria has identified the importance of alternative products to its long-term growth, and the e-vapor market has grown considerably in its short history. In July, Altria announced that it would expand its existing strategic partnership with former subsidiary Philip Morris International to help drive even faster development in the key e-vapor arena.
In particular, Altria and Philip Morris agreed to include a joint research, development, and technology-sharing agreement. Under that agreement, the two companies will work together to develop e-vapor products for commercialization, with Altria marketing them in the U.S. market and leaving Philip Morris to sell the resulting products internationally. With cross-licensing provisions and other exclusive collaboration, Altria shareholders can expect this important partnership to continue for years to come.
These three events contributed to Altria Group's strong performance in 2015. As 2016 begins, investors can expect to see further development on these topics and should hope that the early positive signs that they saw over the past year will bud into even more substantial gains for Altria in the future.