On Sept. 25, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein granted class-action status to a lawsuit against Marlboro maker Philip Morris USA and other cigarette manufacturers. In doing so, he presented Fools with a tremendous buying opportunity in Altria
The class-action case is based on allegations that cigarette makers misled smokers into purchasing light cigarettes over the past three decades by implying that they were safer than regular cigarettes. While the potential damages to the tobacco industry as a result of this lawsuit could amount to $200 billion, I am not overly concerned.
In a famous study, legendary University of Pennsylvania professor Jeremy Siegel concluded that from 1957 to 2003, Altria delivered a 19.75% average annual return, assuming all dividends were reinvested in the company's shares. This performance was tops among all the S&P 500 stocks and beat the index by almost 9% per year. These returns were achieved despite the millions of dollars spent every year by the company in constantly fending off similar litigation. As recently as 1999, the company was incurring legal fees at the rate of $1 million per day.
This has been money well spent. Altria has emerged victorious in terms of avoiding financial penalties in each of the three major court rulings the company has faced during the past 12 months. These rulings include: (1) an August ruling by the U.S. District Court that could have cost the tobacco industry as a whole $130 billion to fund smoking cessation efforts; (2) a July ruling in which the Florida Supreme Court threw out a $145 billion punitive damage award and decertified the Engle case as a class action; and (3) a December ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court that threw out a $10 billion award against Altria holding the company liable for false advertising in the sale of light cigarettes.
There is no reason to believe that this recent "light cigarette" litigation will suffer a fate any different than that of the Illinois Supreme Court ruling. The stock's current depressed price could be merely the result of investor overreaction.
While this lawsuit is just another headache for Altria in its quest to spin off Kraft and its other non-tobacco units, the stock has $100 price potential no matter when the breakup is announced -- whether it's at the company's October board of directors meeting, its December meeting or not until 2007. Jim Cramer of Mad Money echoed the sentiment of many analysts who cover the industry when he said, "By the time the case is overturned, the stock will be up. Altria is a $100 stock masquerading as a $78 stock." Cramer owns the stock as part of his charitable trust, and it was reported by Jeremy Siegel that prior to succeeding Alan Greenspan as FOMC chairman, Ben Bernanke owned only one stock -- Altria.
At the end of July, the company reported second-quarter earnings of $2.71 billion, or $1.29 a share, up from a year-ago profit of $2.67 billion, or $1.28 a share. Altria, which trades at a P/E of less than 15, also lifted its outlook for the full year to earnings from continuing operations of $5.40 to $5.50 a share, up from initial guidance indicating a range of $4.85 to $4.95 per share.
While shareholders are awaiting the company's breakup, they can augment their returns with Altria's 4.5% dividend yield. The company has been paying quarterly dividends since the 1980s and has a track record of upping the amount of its dividend payments by 7% to 10% annually. While it may take some time for this recent lawsuit to go up in smoke and for the Kraft spinoff to commence, I believe that the disciplined investor who takes advantage of this opportune entry point and is able to wait out these proceedings will be a wealthier Fool as a result.
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