Philip Morris International Inc. (PM), through its subsidiaries, manufactures and sells cigarettes, other tobacco products, and other nicotine-containing products. Its portfolio of brands comprise Marlboro, Merit, Parliament, Virginia Slims, L&M, Chesterfield, Bond Street, Lark, Muratti, Next, Philip Morris, and Red & White. The company was created in 2008 when Altria (MO) spun-off its international tobacco operations into Philip Morris International. Between 2008 and 2013, I believed Philip Morris International to be the security I like best. As a result it is one of my largest positions.
Philip Morris International has managed to boost dividends in every single year since 2008. The last dividend increase was in September 2014, when the quarterly dividend was raised by 6% to $1/share. The quarterly dividend has increased from 46 cents/share in 2008. The chart below shows dividends from 2008 to 2015. There were only 3 dividend payments made in 2008, and for 2015 it assumes that the dividend stays unchanged at $1/quarter. It is likely that it will be increased in October 2015, but it is unclear at this time what the increase will be.
In the future, the company can grow earnings per share through acquisitions, entry into new markets, through price increases that exceed decreases in demand, increase in market shares, through new product offerings (such as e-cigarettes) and through share buybacks. I would be curious to see whether PMI tries to diversify beyond tobacco in the future, into other areas such as packaged food for example or alcoholic beverages. The company is committed to returning 100% of cashflow to shareholders, which it has achieved through dividends and share buybacks.
Everyone is aware of the legislation risks behind tobacco companies, and dangers of tobacco investing. As a result, I am not going to discuss those. For those who do not like companies like PMI due to ethical considerations, I respect that. However, please do not try to impose your own ethical considerations on others.
The main positive for PMI is that the company is not dependent on the mercy of a single government and a single market, in terms of unfavorable legislation or bans on tobacco products. For example, the fact that Australia initiated plain packaging laws on cigarettes was not a blow to globally diversified companies like PMI. In addition, even if this plain packaging law spreads to the UK or a few other countries, the diversified nature of PMI’s operations could soften the blow. On the other hand however, it is more cumbersome to deal with 180 governments, which all have different laws and regulations regarding the manufacturing, processing and sale of tobacco products. The fact that a single government entity cannot throw a deadly blow to PMI is a plus. The other positive is that tobacco usage in certain places like emerging markets is actually growing. The downside is that profits per unit are higher in the developed world, and lower in emerging markets.
PMI has managed to increase earnings per share from $2.75 in 2007 to $5.26 in 2013. Since then, earnings per share have decreased and are expected to fall to $4.35 for 2015.
The drop in earnings per share has pushed the dividend payout ratio up, and resulted in slowing down of dividend growth. In itself, a high payout ratio for a tobacco company is not as big of a problem.
However, when earnings per share are dropping, it is a slight cause for concern. The company has recently canceled its stock buyback program. Since May 2008, when PMI began its first share repurchase program, the company has spent an aggregate of $37.7 billion to repurchase 601.4 million shares. This represented 28.5% of the shares outstanding at the time of the spin-off in March 2008. The average price was $62.61 per share. However, the company is not repurchasing any shares for the time being, citing unfavorable currency fluctuations. In comparison, Philip Morris International has one of the most consistent share buyback programs between 2008 and 2014.
In 2014, PMI exceeded its one-year gross productivity and cost savings target of $300 million. In 2015, PMI's productivity and cost savings initiatives will include, continued enhancement of production processes, the harmonization of tobacco blends, the streamlining of product specifications and number of brand variants, supply chain improvements and overall spending efficiency across the company. This is something that could help in attaining future growth in earnings.
In general, I like PMI because the company has a wide moat. This means that its products have strong brand names, pricing power and loyal customer usage. In addition, PMI usually is number one or number two in most of its major markets in Europe, EMEA, ASIA etc. This strong advantage results in recurring sales and earnings for shareholders for years. This wide moat is the reason why I am willing to sit out any short-term turbulence in Philip Morris International. Since my holding period is the next 20 - 30 years, I am willing to sit out short-term weakness ( 3 - 5 years) if I believe that a company has solid long-term potential.
In contrast, Altria (MO) has done spectacularly well since 2008. The most interesting thing to learn is that in 2008, everyone (myself included) believed that PMI will do much better than Altria. Quite on the contrary however, Altria did better because it had a lower P/E ratio and a higher starting yield, which was coupled with consistently high growth in earnings per share. The moral of the story is that when it is conventional wisdom to accept something as a given, the real money making opportunity could be to pursue the alternative viewed as less desirable. By defying skeptics, Altria has rewarded its shareholders much better than PMI since 2008. However, Altria is riskier, since it derives most of its profits from US tobacco sales. The next major source of earnings is its stake in brewer SAB Miller.
Shares of Philip Morris International are not selling for 17.90 times forward earnings and yield 5.10%, with a payout ratio of 92%. If you adjust forward earnings for currency of $1.15/share, the forward P/E drops to 14.20 and payout ratio drops to 72.70%. After looking at the data, I would not consider adding to PMI today. Of course, it is one of my largest positions, so common sense on diversification tells me that I should not buy more even if I wanted to. I believe that in the long-run, PMI’s profits will likely rebound. The nice thing is that I will be paid a high dividend in the process, which I can allocate into other interesting opportunities.
I do not like it when the dividend payout ratios is too high for companies I own and where earnings have been flat or going lower. While the risk that the company will cut dividends is low, since it has some room to maneuver after it has canceled stock buybacks, the risk for a dividend cut increases the longer the payout stays closer to 100%. I would like PMI to prove skeptics wrong, and return back to growing earnings. We all know that without rising earnings, dividend growth cannot be achieved in a sustainable fashion. That being said, I still think the long-term picture (10 - 20 years down the road) is solid however once short-term woes are behind us.
Full Disclosure: Long PM and MO
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