Addiction, Africa, And Dividends: The Case For Philip Morris

| About: Philip Morris (PM)

Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM) has recently experienced a rather unfortunate trajectory towards its 52-week low of $77.19 a share. Instead of avoiding the stock and partaking in the current panic surrounding emerging markets, the recent decline should be seen as something of a buying opportunity. Philip Morris is the world's premier tobacco company, administering seven out of the top 15 international brands. Furthermore, the corporation commands approximately 16% of the total global cigarette market, and almost 29% when omitting China and the US. Philip Morris operates from an undeniably strong position in the international market, and while strategically avoiding stringent regulation in the domestic market, it has the opportunity to capitalize on the large and growing cigarette-addicted populations in developing regions around the world.

From a technical perspective, Philip Morris is extremely attractive. It operates on a modest multiple of below 15, which is lower than the P/E of 17.10 attributed to Reynolds American Inc. (NYSE:RAI) and Lorillard, Inc.'s (NYSE:LO) multiple of 15.5. The company exceeds its competition on profit and operating margins, 27.73% and 43.33% respectively, while exhibiting an excellent 22.58% return on assets as well. In comparison, Philip Morris' major competitor British American Tobacco (NYSEMKT:BTI) has a profit margin of 25.66%, an operating margin of 37.18%, and just a 12.98% return on assets. To drastically improve its appeal, Philip Morris offers a 4.60% dividend. Its debt-to-equity ratio may be concerning, but due to the reliable nature of its industry this matter should not be viewed with tremendous concern. Philip Morris has a solid technical record, but still, this is not its primary allure.

Foreign markets offer room to grow and Philip Morris has the opportunity to be the primary beneficiary. The WHO estimates that today's 250 million women smokers will increase to 340 million by 2020. While this number may have frightening health implications, it is very good news for Philip Morris. The WHO also reports that around 70% of cigarette consumption occurs in foreign markets, and this is a trend that appears to have a bright future as large tobacco companies are largely free to market and capitalize on the lack of health information available to the populations of these regions.

Europe is an area that has traditionally been a strong performer for tobacco companies. That was until the great recession, when even the acyclical product of cigarettes faltered. Now, however, things are improving - but still, less people are smoking. Smoking in the European Union has apparently dropped from 40% to 28% over the past few years. While the drop in smoking is not a good sign for Philip Morris, the improvement in economic conditions can help to offset the general decline in smokers. Net revenues have actually increased year over year, with the company reporting $7.487 billion for the quarters ended September 30th. This is an increase from $6.904 billion from the same period in 2012. Furthermore, though not a part of the E.U., it is noteworthy that the market for cigarettes in Russia is not only massive but quite sustainable with the average person smoking 2,786 cigarettes per year. The European Union, which made up 29% of net revenues in the third quarter of 2013, is not the most promising territory for Philip Morris but should perform consistently nonetheless as the economic climate continues to improve.

The largest market for Philip Morris International is Asia, making up over 30% of net revenues according to the company. Smoking rates in Asia are high and increasing. China averages 1,711 cigarettes per person, which is actually lower than the rates in Korea and Japan, 1,958 and 1,841 respectively. To further extenuate this point, China is home to over 300 million smokers and India is home to another 275 million. In the third quarter of 2013, Philip Morris reported $5.144 billion in net revenues. Although this was a slight drop year-over-year, the long-term implications of market strength in Asia are significant. China and India alone have larger populations of smokers than the entire European Union, and yet, net revenues in Asia still have yet to eclipse the Eurozone. There is always a threat of regulation, but it appears as though much of the continent is addicted to tobacco, and thus it will remain and improve as a major contributor to Philip Morris.

While Eastern Europe and the Middle East are both amongst the fastest growing markets for cigarettes and hold much promise for Philip Morris, it is Africa that has by far the most potential. Little-to-no regulation, a serious lack of health information, and underdeveloped expansion into Africa makes the potential for drastic increase in cigarette smoking a terrifying possibility for human health in the region. Directly correlated to those fears are opportunities for Philip Morris. Time magazine has reported that Africa has the lowest smoking rates in the world, but only because most cannot afford to smoke. Philip Morris is poised to take advantage of the opportunity that will arise as industry in Africa develops and more money begins to circulate. Late in 2013, it purchased a 49% stake in Societe des Tabacs Algero-Emiratie for approximately $625 million.This move strengthens the company's position in Northern Africa, and is symbolic of leadership's ambition to expand in the region. Africa presents tobacco companies with a massive opportunity, and with Philip Morris at the forefront of the international markets they are best situated to succeed.

Philip Morris offers a hefty dividend and has been a solid performer in a consistent industry. The addiction to Philip Morris' products literally serves as a defense against risk in the emerging markets in which it thrives, rendering the fears surrounding those regions to be less threatening. Steady and well-performing markets such as Russia, Eastern Europe, Asia, and even the E.U. will continue to carry the bulk of Philip Morris' business as it begins to shift its attention towards expansion in Africa. The stock is currently trading near its 52 week low, creating a window of opportunity to initiate a new long position or to expand upon a previous investment. They report earnings on February 10, and while waiting until after earnings to make a final judgment before investing may not hurt, the stock is a good buy at current levels and has a very bright future as a long-term prospect.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Additional disclosure: I believe the prospects [detailed in the article] to be advantageous for Philip Morris and at times its competitors, not, however, for society or for human health.