Friday, April 27, 2007

Notes From The Altria Shareholder Meeting

I have had quite a few posts on MO recently and this is a product of both earnings season and investor meetings, not a myopic focus on one stock. There were a couple of very important items discussed and disclosed at the annual meeting today. Here they are with opinion.

CEO Camilleri: "Over the next several months, we will continue to carefully and diligently examine the benefits of a spin-off of Philip Morris International (PMI) and other possible value-enhancing options to decide the optimal long-term strategic course to follow."

Before the Kraft (KFT) spin there was no mention in any earnings report or announcement of the possibility of a spin. The very fact that Camilleri is even discussing it all but assures the spin shareholders want. It was also discussed on the earnings call last Thursday. It needs to be pointed out here that PMI is set up to run as an independent company so the actual spin will only be a paper transaction, not a logistical one.

Shareholder Returns
  • Our total shareholder return was 19.9% in 2006, assuming dividend reinvestment, outperforming the Standard & Poor’s (S&P) 500 Index for the fifth consecutive year.
  • Over the past five years, our total shareholder return has been an outstanding 142.6%, significantly ahead of the five-year total return for the S&P 500 Index at 35%.

New Products For PM USA Growth:

To enhance its growth profile, PM USA embarked on an adjacency strategy. It took the first step toward this goal in 2006 with the test market launch of Taboka, a smoke-free, spit-free tobacco product that provides a new way for adult smokers to enjoy tobacco in a pouch. PM USA has learned much from this test. While I cannot share our findings for obvious competitive reasons, I can state with confidence that these learnings will be translated into further action, and that a number of initiatives will be announced as the year unfolds.

Much has been said about the possibility of MO buying UST for the smokeless business. It will not happen. Why? Smokers are quite possibly the most brand loyal folks out there, chew users, not so much (I speak from experience, used to be one). What does MO have? The #1 brand of cigarettes with over 50% market share. If they introduce a new product, it will be accepted much like the instant acceptance a new Budweiser product gets by beer drinkers. It will receive a trial by chew users who will be inclined to like it as it will be perceived as being a quality product. They will have no problems abandoning their current product to try the new Altria one. The cost/benefit of a self-produced product vs. an acquired product is huge for us shareholders as it leaves billions to be returned to us.

Working With The FDA:
PM USA continues to be the only major cigarette manufacturer supporting regulation of the tobacco industry by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This February, legislation was introduced in the U.S. Congress that would grant the FDA comprehensive regulatory authority over all tobacco products sold in the United States. We believe that this proposed legislation offers the prospect of effectively reducing harm and providing real solutions to the many complex issues involving tobacco.

Altria and Philip Morris USA (PM USA) believe regulation of tobacco products by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would establish a comprehensive national tobacco policy that could potentially create a competitive framework within which manufacturers are focused on reducing the harm tobacco use causes. The companies believe regulation would also bring predictability and clear standards to the tobacco industry in the United States.

On February 15, 2007, Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and John Cornyn (R-TX) and Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Tom Davis (R-VA) introduced legislation to grant the FDA broad authority to regulate tobacco products. Altria and PM USA strongly support this bipartisan legislation and urge Congress to take quick action on the Kennedy/Cornyn and Waxman/ Davis FDA bills.

The legislation, known as the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act establishes a regulatory structure and standards for the manufacturing and marketing of all tobacco products that will provide its greatest benefits to tobacco consumers. Key legislative provisions include:
  • Regulation of nicotine. The FDA would have authority to reduce nicotine yields and to reduce or eliminate harmful smoke constituents or harmful components of tobacco products;
  • Authority for the FDA to regulate descriptors such as "light" and "low tar";
  • Changing the language of the current cigarette and smokeless tobacco product health warnings, enlarging their size and granting FDA authority to require new warnings in the future;
  • Full disclosure of ingredients added to tobacco products;
  • Authority for the FDA to require ingredient testing and to remove harmful ingredients;
  • Authority for the FDA to do more to prevent minors from using tobacco products;
  • Authority to establish standards for products that could potentially reduce the harm caused by tobacco products and to define the appropriate ways to communicate about these products; and
  • A ban on the sale of candy and fruit-flavored cigarettes.
Why would Altria be the only tobacco company that supports this? Easy answer. Because what this legislation will do is standardize cigarettes. Nicotine levels and other factors will be regulated, diminishing the differences between brands. When your brand is number one in a brand loyal market, eliminating the competitions ability to make their products substantially different than yours has the effect of negating them. Since cigarette companies cannot advertise their products, other companies will not be able to give tobacco users a reason to try something else. Essentially the brands people smoke will remain that way and when you have over 50% of the market, that is just fine. This is the reason other tobacco companies oppose this legislation. On another note, by letting the FDA control such wide ranging rules, Altria is taking a huge step at eliminating future liability threats. Every action they take will be approved by the Federal government and will remove liability that may stem from those actions. Brilliant. Much like the 1998 Master Settlement that made state governments defacto tobacco bond holders and slaves to the revenues they profess to want to reduce, this legislation will further cement Altria's dominance of this highly profitable industry.

The Best Part
Camilleri: "Our ability to generate cash flow remains undiminished. Over the four-year period from 2006 through 2009, we project that cash flow will reach a cumulative level of some $41 billion. We plan to continue using our strong cash flow to reward you, our shareholders."

This statement makes we want to go buy more shares. $41 billion dollars in the hands of one of the most shareholder friendly companies around makes me giddy. Without using any debt, MO could in theory by back almost 30% of the outstanding shares or, they could almost triple the annual dividend. They won't go to those extremes of course but I point it out to illustrate the dramatic possibilities for shareholders of the amount of cash they will produce.

This stuff is really fun folks.....


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