Altria Group: A Smoking-Hot Dividend Champion

| About: Altria Group, (MO)
This article is now exclusive for PRO subscribers.


Altria is a dividend champion which has managed to increase dividends to shareholders for 44 years in a row.

Currently, this dividend champion is attractive at 16.30 times earnings, yields 5.20%, and has a high but sustainable payout ratio. Constant threats to tobacco result in low valuation.

The low valuation, coupled with high yields and consistent earnings and dividend increases could result in compounding miracles for long-term investors.

Altria Group, Inc. (NYSE:MO), through its subsidiaries, engages in the manufacture and sale of cigarettes, smokeless products, and wine in the United States and internationally. This dividend champion has managed to increase dividends to shareholders for 44 years in a row.

Many databases show reductions in dividend payments in 2007 and 2008, which is due to the spin-offs of Kraft Foods and Philip Morris International (NYSE:PM). As a result, Altria was kicked out of what I used to believe was the elite dividend aristocrat index. The investors in Altria from early 2007 would have received shares in Kraft and Philip Morris International, and therefore their total dividend income would not have suffered at all. It actually increased, because all three companies raised dividends in 2008. Those original Kraft shares were further split into Mondelez International (NASDAQ:MDLZ) and Kraft (KRFT). This is why one should not focus on purely quantitative characteristics, but should also take the time to understand companies by analyzing them in detail one at a time. By focusing too much on screening, you might miss out on important information.

Since the spin-off of Philip Morris International in 2008, quarterly dividends per share have increased from 29 cents/share to 48 cents/share in 2013.

Altria Group pays a very high portion of net income as dividends to shareholders. However, it has a limited need to reinvest large portions of its net income, which is why this ratio is not as troubling as it would be for Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), for example. In the old days, Altria used its strong cash flows to diversify into food and spirits, but I do not think this is the case nowadays. Back until the early 2000s, Altria was known as Philip Morris. Now, it has a 26.90% economic and voting interest in SABMiller (OTCPK:SBMRF). Altria earned $402 million in dividends from its stake in SABMiller in 2012. Its share of SABMiller's profits was $1.224 billion. This stake is worth approximately 20-21 billion dollars at current prices. In comparison, Altria's market capitalization today is $73 billion.

Earnings per share increased from $1.48 in 2008 to $2.26 by 2013. The company expects to earn $2.57/share by 2014 and $2.76/share by 2015. While I take forward analyst estimates with a grain of salt, I have a high degree of confidence that Altria can achieve decent earnings growth in the long run, fueled by price increases, which are higher than declines in volume and cost restructurings. This could translate into quarterly dividends hitting $2.05/share in 2014 and $2.20 in 2015.

The future for tobacco consumption in the US is bleak. I would estimate that the amount of cigarettes sold will decline by 3-4% per year for the foreseeable future. There are bans on smoking in public, buildings, parks, bars etc.

However, there is a difference between the future for tobacco consumption and the future for tobacco companies. The reason behind this variance is stemming from the fact that demand for cigarette products is relatively inelastic. This means that an increase in the price of cigarettes typically results in declines in the amount of cigarette consumption. The increase in prices, however is usually higher than the declines in consumption, which results in higher revenues overall.

The market for tobacco companies is inefficient, because there are some investors who are biased against tobacco companies, regardless of valuation or future business prospects. This does not mean these investors are morally right or wrong - they have the right to their own opinions. However, they are not being rational in evaluating tobacco companies as investments.

Most know about the terrible facts about tobacco use. This has led to depressed valuations for tobacco companies in almost all of the times. This means that if you can reinvest those fat dividends at low valuations, your future returns have a very high chance of being pretty good.

Governments need tobacco companies, because these companies provide them with a healthy stream of revenues through excise taxes for example. Furthermore, it is much more popular to tax the evil tobacco conglomerates rather than increase taxes on middle class voters or reduce education expenditures for high schools

The positives behind companies like Altria include strong brand loyalty, the fact that consumers are addicted to the product, efficiencies of scale and strong pricing power. It would be almost impossible to start a competing tobacco company today, because of the ban on advertising.

However, the emerging opportunity and threat are e-cigarettes. It seems that these are advertised, and could convert a portion of regular smokers to e-cig smokers. Unfortunately, e-cigarettes could be more disruptive than regulation threats, and they carry slimmer margins. On the positive side, for those legacy tobacco companies that are building up their e-cigarette businesses, this could be a growth kick to their otherwise stable tobacco revenues. Plus, I would not be surprised if advertising of e-cigarettes reminds consumers about regular cigarettes, thus leading to increase in tobacco consumption. Most recently, Phillip Morris International and Altria created an agreement to exclusively commercialize two of Altria's e-cigarette products outside the U.S.. At the same time, PMI will make available to Altria two of its heated tobacco products for sale in the US.

Recent news about CVS (NYSE:CVS) dropping tobacco products from its stores may have upset some investors, but those headlines are an example of investment noise out there. It is noise because consumers who were used to purchasing tobacco products at CVS would likely take their business elsewhere. Of course, the real risk is if other retailers follow suit, and decide to stop selling tobacco products altogether. I see this scenario having a very low likelihood however, since these retailers could lose out not only on tobacco revenues but on incremental revenues that tobacco customers bring with them. For example, if you buy your gasoline at the place that you also buy your pack of cigarettes, you might simply take all of your business elsewhere if your Marlboro is not available.

For Altria, it has a dominant position in the US tobacco market with the Marlboro brand having a very loyal following amongst smokers. The sheer scale of operations allows Altria to exert higher influence on vendors and distributors. The company is also a leader in the US smokeless market, with a 50-55% market share. The smokeless tobacco segment is expected to generate single digit volume growth.

Currently, this dividend champion sells for 16.10 times earnings, yields 5.30%, and has a high payout ratio. Given the economics of the business, and the expectation for future earnings growth in the mid-single digits, I find it attractively valued today. I plan on adding to my position in the company sometime in 2014, subject to availability of funds.

Disclosure: I am long MO, PM, KRFT, MDLZ, KO. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Editor's Note: This article covers one or more stocks trading at less than $1 per share and/or with less than a $100 million market cap. Please be aware of the risks associated with these stocks.