Money

Is Altria Group a “Buy” at Current Prices?

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A reader recently requested that I put cigarette manufacturer Altria Group (NYSE: MO) through The Value Meter.

Honestly, I could hardly ask for a more interesting assignment.

For the three decades of my adult life, it has been clear to me (and everyone) that the cigarette business is in a permanent decline.

Yet when I pull up Altria’s long-term stock chart and compare it with the S&P 500’s, this is what I see…

Chart: Altria Group "Smoking" the S&P 500

Wow!

Incredibly, Altria is the seventh-best-performing stock in the entire market over the past three decades.

Who would’ve thought that was possible for a company in a declining industry?

If I had somehow bought $10,000 worth of Altria stock when I graduated high school in 1991, reinvested my dividends and held it until today… I would have $10.8 million!

Clearly, when we look in the rearview mirror, Altria looks great.

But looking backward isn’t what successful investing is about.

We need to determine how Altria’s stock is likely to perform going forward.

And this is where valuing Altria gets very tough.

For years, Altria and other cigarette manufacturers have been able to offset declining sales volumes with price increases.

But they can’t do that if sales volume disappears entirely…

Which is becoming a real risk.

Late last year, New Zealand introduced a generational smoking ban, which outlaws cigarette sales to anyone born after January 1, 2009.

The U.K. is considering a similar policy, and I don’t doubt other countries will follow.

It goes without saying that a ban on Altria’s main product would be horrendous news for its business.

It should be noted, though, that Altria’s management is attempting to steer the company toward selling less harmful, smokeless products.

So far, the company is having some success with this effort, but it’s still too early to discern the overall effect on the business.

Regarding Altria’s current valuation, it’s possible that the long-term decline of smoking has already taken a toll.

The stock trades at barely eight times earnings, so there is no optimism being priced in.

But investors may be optimistic about the company’s dividend yield. The stock yields nearly 10% at current prices, and the dividend was rated “moderately safe” by Chief Income Strategist Marc Lichtenfeld earlier this year.

With that kind of dividend, you don’t need Altria’s stock price to rise in order to achieve an excellent return.

And that brings us back to the all-important question… Where does Altria come in on The Value Meter?

The future of this business is just too uncertain for me to have any conviction on it.

With countries around the world making moves to restrict smoking and cigarette sales, I believe that the risk here is much higher than it was 30 years ago.

Despite the company’s low valuation metric and huge dividend, there are better opportunities elsewhere.

That is why The Value Meter rates Altria Group as being “Appropriately Valued.”


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