Is Altria Group (MO) a High-Yield Investor's Dream?

Altria Group, Inc. (MO), one of the world's largest producers and marketers of tobacco, cigarettes, and related products, possesses virtues appealing to income-focused investors. The company's commitment to shareholder value is evidenced by 54 consecutive years of dividend payments, the latest of which marked its 58th increase, resulting in an impressive dividend yield of 9.72%. This, along with its low non-GAAP forward P/E of 8.14x, elevates MO into a secure and appealing investment proposition.

However, income investors are advised to be diligent, given the shift in the business landscape. Despite the company's significant presence, there has been a noticeable lag in capturing the interest of certain fractions of the financial community.

The health perils associated with smoking, ranging from Cancer to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) such as emphysema, are no secret. Nicotine's addictive nature results in many to continue smoking despite understanding these risks.

Acknowledging this reality, MO is reinventing its offerings, transitioning toward smokeless tobacco products and electronic alternatives like vapes. This shift stems from changing perceptions and attitudes toward smoking, buoyed further by the mushrooming popularity of smoking alternatives.

While venturing into vaping, MO must redouble its efforts to win significant market share. It could secure its future by matching its dominance in the traditional cigarette market within the e-cigarette industry.

Despite commanding a substantial 42.3% market share and 58.9% share in the premium segment, there are mounting concerns about the long-term ability of MO to sustain its dividend payments. This is due to the rising unpopularity of cigarettes amid health concerns.

The Richmond-Virginia-based tobacco company’s robust economic foothold is widely acknowledged. However, a slump in performance since its peak in mid-2017 has led to speculation that its glory days might be behind it. The company's recent third-quarter results substantiate these market apprehensions.

In the fiscal third quarter (ended September 30, 2023), total smokeable products volume declined 11.4% year-over-year as demand for its core cigarette business dwindled, exacerbated by the influx of illicit e-vapor products. This downturn began amid the COVID-19 pandemic and has been eating into product volumes ever since.

Its revenue for the quarter declined 2.5% year-over-year. However, MO has so far managed by consistently raising cigarette prices for a shrinking customer base, which allowed it to maintain revenue acceptable for its dividend payout, thus attracting income-oriented investors.

This year, MO has so far accrued pre-tax charges amounting to $424 million for tobacco litigation, including the settlement of JUUL-related litigation. In May, MO settled an estimated 6,000 lawsuits accusing it of exacerbating the teen vaping epidemic through its prior investment in JUUL.

In addition to falling short of Wall Street’s expectations for the third quarter of 2023, the company narrowed the current fiscal year’s adjusted EPS outlook. The company expects the adjusted EPS between $4.91 and $4.98, or a growth rate of 1.5% to 3%, down from the prior forecast of between $4.89 and $5.03, or a growth rate of 1% to 4%.

MO’s shares have dipped slightly after an underwhelming third-quarter performance and a narrowed 2023 earnings outlook. It has lost over 10% year-to-date.

Bottom Line

MO faces significant macroeconomic challenges, competition from illegal merchants and manufacturers contesting NJOY, and a substantial decline in legacy tobacco product sales.

Cigarettes constitute approximately 90% of MO's gross revenue. The firm is grappling with the consequences of its exclusive reliance on a single-market strategy. July’s Gallup poll indicates declining smoking rates in the U.S. as cigarette use drops. There is a growing concern that demographic trends might inevitably usher the company's revenue into decline.

Moreover, considering its poor fundamentals in the last reported quarter, a segment of the investment community may be suitable to assume higher execution risks, which perhaps the company's modest valuation may not have fully considered.

Its solid dividend yield compares with the S&P Index's 1.5% yield and other reliable income alternatives. Apprehensions persist, however, regarding the company's capacity to offset volume dips with long-term price hikes. Investor unease persists about the feasibility of the projected mid-single adjusted EPS growth outlook through 2028.

Along with MO's appealing valuation and high dividend yield, investors must consider the factors discussed in this article before investing in the stock.