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Packing Altria into the Tobacco Company Comparison

A few weeks ago, we compared the two then-current Magic Formula® Investing (MFI) tobacco stocks, Lorillard (LO) and Vector Group (VGR). Well, late last week, yet another tobacco firm entered the screen, the proverbial 800 pound gorilla in the space, Altria Group (MO). How does Altria fit into our comparison, and is it a buy candidate?

The Undisputed Champion

Altria, formerly Philip Morris, is unquestionably the #1 company in the domestic tobacco industry. Its Marlboro brand of cigarettes accounted for an amazing 43.6% share of the U.S. market in 2012, up 0.6% from the prior year. It has been the #1 selling brand in the U.S. for over 35 years. Marlboro is a category-busting brand, with offerings in almost every segment of the market, including full-flavor, menthols, "light" and "ultra light" (although they can't be called that anymore), 72 and 100 millimeter, etc.

Along with other premium brands such as Parliament and Virginia Slims, and discount brands like Basic, Altria commands 50.3% of the U.S. cigarette market. Considering the next-closest firm, Reynolds, only carries 27% market share, Altria's dominance is clear.

The company also has a sizable smokeless tobacco division (just under 13% of sales), stemming from the 2009 purchase of UST. Similar to its dominance in cigarettes, Altria's Copenhagen and Skoal brands together accounted for 55.2% of U.S. chew sales last year, up from 54.8% in 2011. Reynolds, with its Grizzly and Kodiak holding 31.5% share, is a distant second. Smokeless is an attractive business. With much lower excise taxes and no settlement payments to the states, smokeless products carry immense (> 50%) operating margins. Furthermore, this is actually a growth business, with Copenhagen volume up almost 9% in the most recent quarter.

Altria isn't sitting still on the latest trends, either. The firm recently announced that it would be launching its first e-cig products (MarkTen) in August, challenging Lorillard (with blu) and several smaller manufacturers in the category.

Finally, Altria has a 27% stake in SABMiller, one of the world's largest brewers. This very attractive investment has routinely generated about 10% of Altria's pre-tax profits.

Against the Other MFI Tobacco Firms

In the previous article, we concluded firmly that Lorillard was a far better choice than Vector, for a variety of reasons. The same is true of Altria - far better operator, better competitive advantages, better balance sheet, etc. So the comparison comes down to which is a better buy: Lorillard or Altria?

By the numbers, we have two very similar firms here. Both Altria and Lorillard generate around 30% operating margins, convert 16% of sales to free cash flows, have similarly leveraged balance sheets, and carry dividend yields of 5%. Both have very strong and share-taking brands in Marlboro and Newport. Lorillard is actually generating modest revenue growth (3-4%) as menthols continue to account for higher percentages of cigarette sales, while Altria is basically treading water (flat revenues over the last 3 years). On the other hand, Lorillard does not compete in the attractive smokeless market, and although Lorillard does have significant share in e-cigs (40%), the "big boys" are coming to play very soon.

The last thing we have to compare is valuation. Lorillard is cheaper. Using the Magic Formula® earnings yield calculation, which accounts for cash and debt, Lorillard carries a 10.9% yield while Altria's is just 8.9%. However, this has been the norm - LO's 5-year average is 11.9% while MO's is about 10%! If investors do want one point of differentiation, Lorillard's payout of free cash flow towards the dividend is measurably lower at 71.5% vs. Altria's 92.3%.

Conclusion: Just Say No

We've done a lot of comparison here, but MagicDiligence believes that neither Lorillard nor Altria (and certainly not Vector Group) make particularly attractive investments right now. Just from above, we can see that both stocks are trending above their historical valuations at present. Additionally, a discounted free cash flow calculation gives me a fair value of $47 for Lorillard and $35 for Altria - both right around current prices. MFI investors should look elsewhere for opportunities.

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Disclosure: Steve owns no stocks referenced here.

Joel Greenblatt and MagicFormulaInvesting.com are not associated in any way with this website. Neither Mr. Greenblatt or MagicFormulaInvesting.com endorse this website's investment opinions, strategy, or products. Investment recommendations on this website are not chosen by Mr. Greenblatt, nor are they based on Mr. Greenblatt's proprietary investment model, and are not chosen by MagicFormulaInvesting.com. Magic Formula® is a registered trademark of MagicFormulaInvesting.com, which has no connection to this website. The information on this website is for informational purposes only and solely represents the views and opinions of the author. No warranty is provided or implied as to the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of this information. This information may not be construed as investment advice of any kind, nor can it be relied upon as the basis for stock trades. Alexander Online Properties LLC, the proprietor of this website, is not responsible in any way for losses or damages resulting from the use of this information. Alexander Online Properties LLC is not a registered investment advisor. All logos are trademarked properties of their respective companies.

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