Consumer Products

Altria Blows Off $4.5 Billion Charge Related to Vaping Fatalities

Altria Group Inc. (NYSE: MO) reported third-quarter 2019 results before markets opened on Thursday. The maker of Marlboro cigarettes posted quarterly adjusted diluted earnings per share (EPS) of $1.19 on revenue of $6.86 billion. In the same period a year ago, the company reported EPS of $1.08 on $5.29 billion in revenues. Consensus estimates called for EPS of $1.15 and revenue of $5.34 billion the most recent quarter.

Adjusted EPS does not include the impact of a $4.5 billion noncash, pretax charge related to the company’s stake in e-cigarette maker Juul. Last December, Altria paid $12.8 billion for its stake in Juul.

The company said “no single determinative event” forced the write-down but that threatened FDA action to remove flavored vaping products from the market; bans already imposed by some states, localities and international markets; and “other factors” led to the charge. Those factors presumably include 34 deaths and 1,604 reported cases of serious lung injuries related to vaping.

What investors like best about Altria (and other cigarette makers) is the company’s rich dividend yield. At last night’s close, the yield was 7.24%. The company raised its dividend in August to an annualized rate of $3.36 and paid dividends of $1.5 billion in the third quarter. The company did not repurchase any shares in the quarter but expects to complete its currently authorized $1 billion buyback program by the end of 2020. At the end of the second quarter, Altria reported $195 million remaining in its existing buyback program.

Chair and CEO Howard Willard commented:

We believe that, with current adult smoker trends and e-vapor disruption, it’s an opportune time to expand the availability of [IQOS and other products].

In light of these considerations, we announce a compounded annual adjusted diluted EPS growth objective of 5% to 8% for the years 2020 through 2022. We believe this new growth objective provides us the flexibility to make investments in noncombustible offerings for the long term, generate sustainable income growth in the core tobacco businesses, and return cash to shareholders through a strong dividend. We also expect to maintain our dividend payout ratio target of approximately 80% of adjusted diluted EPS during this period.

In its outlook statement, Altria affirmed its EPS forecast for $4.19 to $4.27 for the full 2019 fiscal year and continued:

Altria’s 2019 guidance reflects its expectation for a higher full-year adjusted effective tax rate, primarily resulting from lower dividends from ABI; increased interest expense from the debt incurred to fund the Cronos and JUUL transactions; savings from the Cost Reduction Program, which Altria expects to build through year-end to an annualized level of approximately $575 million; and increased investments related to PM USA’s lead market plans for launching IQOS. The guidance assumes little-to-no adjusted earnings or cash contributions from the Cronos and JUUL investments.

The company’s shares traded up about 1.6% at $45.96 in Thursday’s premarket session. The stock’s 52-week range is $39.30 to $66.04. The 12-month consensus price target was $53.03 before this morning’s report.