Summary

  • 50% gains possible according to Buffett in arbitrage situations Altria potentially has.
  • Scott Gottlieb has a conflict of interest when it comes to Juul.
  • Altria has a large arbitrage situation currently overlooked by many investors.
  • A Peter Lynch style analysis reveals unrealized value in Altria.
  • Earnings should provide more clarity on how fast this unrealized value is reflected in the stock price.

Warren Buffett made one of those extraordinary claims that require extraordinary proof in a 1999 interview with BusinessWeek. He said investing large sums is a lot harder than investing, say, a million dollars, where he felt he could generate 50% annual returns. Then he corrected himself and said he guaranteed he could do it.

Fast forward to modern times where Buffett has passed at least one rein to younger people to help him invest the massive pile of cash at Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A). He said he didn’t place any significant restrictions on their investments as long as they didn’t get him in trouble, like buying Microsoft (MSFT) or tobacco companies like Altria (MO). (Buffett is a personal friend of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, and could have a conflict of interest if he invested in Microsoft. Buffett worries an investment in a tobacco company would harm his reputation.)

Buffett’s wisdom is legendary. In an interview I once heard him say when asked about tobacco companies: The product costs a penny to make and it’s addictive; What’s not to like?

Indeed! I believe Buffett avoids Altria mostly for reputation reasons. Most readers here, however, are interested in maximizing wealth and are unconcerned with owning oil, automotive, chemical or tobacco companies, as long as they are conducting business in a legal manner.

 

50% Gains

So how would Buffett achieve 50% gains with wealth levels readers here actually possess? 

Buffett said he would look for arbitrage situations to capitalize on. This would mean scouring small companies with hidden value. Of course, this would be a full-time job. But hey, if you can pull a clean half mill a year it might be worth the effort.

If you are allergic to those levels of research there is an easier way if you are willing to earn an above market average, but probably less than 50% annually.

The market is at lofty levels as I write. Most listed companies are trading at nosebleed levels. Unless you are willing to consider the damaged (Boeing (BA) might be on your watch list) or the hated, you are stuck doing the research or accepting market returns, wherever that leads from this market level.

Altria has been a portfolio holding for me for a very long time and it has served me well. Before Buffett asked, What’s not to like? I already knew I liked the company, even if I never use the products. 

Holding Altria for such a long time means I have spent considerable time researching the company. I was there when the world was coming to an end for tobacco in the 1990s due to the massive settlement. 

It seems Altria (and tobacco in general) loves to go into a tizzy every so often. It makes for awesome buying opportunities where the stock price is lower and the dividend yield is higher. Rumors of tobacco’s death are greatly exaggerated. 

Altria is starting to exit one of these “end of the world” scenarios again. The Juul/vaping scare was worse than the damage done in the 1990s when there was a real existential risk.

Of course, there is plenty to worry about. Juul isn’t working as planned. (When does business go as planned?) And cigarette volumes are in a long-term decline. 

Altria does have something Buffett salivates about: pricing power. Altria is likely to increase prices faster than consumption declines. That means more dividends for patient investors.

Juul isn’t dead either! Yes, there are serious problems with getting the Juul transactions approved and Juul is dealing with litigation issues and a declining market share and increased regulations. The Juul approval is more a matter of time and what changes to the deal the government will require rather than a deal that will end up in court or unwound. 

Vaping isn’t dead either! Growth in vaping has slowed. But if you looked at the vaping growth rates a year ago it was obvious growth rates had to slow. Juul was on pace a year ago to be bigger than the entire U.S. tobacco industry in less than 7 years. Reference Stein’s Law: Anything that cannot go on forever, doesn’t.

Health issues surrounding vaping was not due to Juul products. Illegal street vaping pods, usually involving THC, were the chief culprit and maybe the entire culprit.

Juul’s market share has declined from over 80% to ~60%. However, vaping has continued to grow so Juul is getting a smaller piece of a larger market. Like it or not, vaping is the future of nicotine consumption.

 

Scott Gottlieb’s Conflict of Interest

Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the FDA, has managed to get himself a cushy job at Pfizer (PFE). Gottlieb has made it his mission to bad mouth tobacco, but has a special hate for vaping and Juul, the leader in the industry. Now why is that?

Well, vaping has the real possibility of reducing tobacco use and is partly responsible to the increased rate of decline in cigarette use. Gottlieb should be happy with that, but seems to hate the good news. What gives? First, Gottlieb works for Pfizer now, which sells the leading smoking cessation product, Chantix. It becomes clear quickly why Gottlieb is more addicted tobacco than an 84-year-old chain smoker once you realize his income stream is at risk if smoking rates decline too much or too fast.

Second, Chantix is reported to be no better than nicotine patches. Nicotine patches are cheaper than Chantix with fewer side effects. Gottlieb doesn’t seem to want to address this issue during public interviews. 

Third, Pfizer has been busting tail to get a serious warning label removed from boxes of Chantix. Gottlieb took care of that problem promptly once he was working for Pfizer. I’m not saying Gottlieb did anything illegal or unethical. I’m just saying the circumstances does lead one to wonder.

Once you consider Gottlieb’s past with his comments, it becomes clear he likely has an agenda that might not jib with reduced cigarette smoking rates. When regulators and investors realize Gottlieb seems to be encouraging more tobacco use to benefit his employer’s bottom line, his crusade against vaping declines.

 

Hidden Treasure in Altria

I don’t know if Warren Buffett could actually deliver on his promise of 50% annual gains. I do know that arbitrage is an excellent way to spike your investment returns.

A Peter Lynch style review of Altria reveals massive unrealized value. It is easy to forget Altria is more than cigarettes. There is a dash of wine in the portfolio, non-combustible tobacco products, Juul, Anheuser Busch inbev NV (BUD), Cronos (CRON) and on! Nicotine Pouches in the product line as well. 

Let’s take an impossibly negative approach to Altria and see if the company survives or is loaded with large hidden treasures. 

For starters, let’s value Juul at zero. I know, I know. It is worth at least something, but we take no prisoners around here when we tally up a business’s valuation under a worst case scenario. 

Next we gut Cronos’s value and place it at zero, as well. In fact, let’s just value everything outside tobacco at zero, with the exception of BUD.

Altria owns 10.1% of BUD, with a valuation of ~$14 billion as I write. 

Altria has a market cap of ~$95 billion. If everything they own is worth nothing, except for the investment in BUD, which has no restriction on the holding starting in 2021, Altria has a core valuation of ~$81 billion. 

This valuation is for a company kicking out over $7 billion in cash flow without help from Juul! 

And let’s be honest, all that other stuff Altria owns has some value. How much is still to be determined. That is how it works with businesses. Value has to be created to be realized. (Remember the formula for value creation: Return on Invested Capital (ROIC) minus Cost of Capital (COC). A positive number is value creation.)

What we do know is Altria’s core business is kicking out loads of cash to pay down debt (on the 3rd quarter earnings call Chairman Howard A. Willard stated Altria paid down $1 billion of debt in the 3rd quarter and planned on paying down a similar amount in the 4th quarter of 2019), buy back stock, pay dividends and grow the business. 

 

Earnings Report

Altria’s upcoming 4th quarter 2019 earnings report will clarify some of these issues. I am interested to see how much debt was actually reduced. I also want to see how cigarette volumes are holding up and if we will have two or three price increases in 2020. 

Juul is the unknown. Will more write-down be in the cards? My gut tells me things are stabilizing at Juul, but gut is not an acceptable investment tool and has a poor track record. Cronos still has a lot of work to do to reach profitability.

A bright spot is the non-combustible tobacco products. Chew has been growing, but is still a relatively small part of the business.

What interests me more than any other product is iQOS — the heat, not burn product — licensed from Philip Morris International (PM). FDA conditional approval is a significant advantage Altria received in 2019. iQOS is rolling out in a measured fashion as you read.

The future of tobacco is in the non-combustible, reduced-risk products. Wouldn’t it be a kick if Altria found serious value in iQOS instead of Juul?

Either way, I think there is massive hidden value in Altria. With such a diverse mix of products, Altria is well situated to keep pumping out large, growing dividends for a long time to come. 

Unless you have a convincing argument people will quite smoking tobacco and using weed, chewing, vaping and drinking beer and wine, I think Altria has a bright future.

 

* Notes: As longtime readers of this blog know, I own shares in Altria and use it as an investing test model. Originally written for Seeking Alpha, this post provides an update on my reading of the tea leaves. I still own and plan on continuing to own shares in MO and PM. I own a small amount of BA and MSFT as part of my watch list. I do not own shares of other companies mentioned in this post at this time with no plans to open a position either.

 

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What if you could buy Juul for a fraction of its value before it goes public? You can with this one simple trick. #Juul #Altria #stosks #investing #stockinvesting #indexfundsThere is a hunger for more information on my thought process when considering an investment in an individual stock. Index funds are still the best choice for most people as they are low-cost and are easy to set up and automate. Yet, the questions still come in.

Investing some of your liquid cash into a promising business is not only exciting, but offers the opportunity for outsized gains. Catching Microsoft or Amazon before they started their assent to the moon would increase the returns of any portfolio. Buying a good business increases the chances your returns will be higher than mere index funds.

Recently I published a review of the financial statements of Altria (MO) and why this might be a good company to invest in. However, I go much deeper than just the financials before plopping down my hard cash. Management needs to be assessed; how the company treats shareholders is important; is there a competitive advantage? 

It is still possible today to find stocks trading at incredible values. Apple (AAPL) has loads of cash. A large portion of AAPL’s stock price is the cash they hold. The enterprise value reflected in the stock is compelling even as the price has climbed and U.S./China trade issues abound.

MO will be our guinea pig again today as I lay out my investment thought process. The reason for this is I own MO and have recently added to my position so my reasoning is fresh. I recommend you read the first post linked two paragraphs above first. You can get a clear idea of why MO is worth considering from the financial statements before continuing. It is a good idea to bookmark these two posts so you can review the process before buying your next stock.

But there is so much more. Like AAPL, MO has hidden bonuses for owners of the company and risks to consider.

 

Money in the Drawer

Back in the 1980s when Peter Lynch was the name you listened to when it came to expert stock advice a unique situation existed.

Savings & Loans were going public at a torrid pace. Once it was discovered how much money could be made, every S&L couldn’t covert to a bank and issue public shares fast enough. Lynch made a killing for the fund (Magellan) he managed at Fidelity.

The biggest problem was getting enough shares. Non-customers of the S&L were frequently locked out of the offering. Even depositors of the S&L could only buy a limited number of shares.

Most S&Ls were small. But there were thousands of them! 

Shares usually went public at $10 or thereabouts and almost always saw a sharp increase the first day of trading. Gains of 60% and more in the first month of trading were not unheard of. 

Lynch clued this accountant into the secret early on. Since the S&Ls had no current shareholders technically all the money from the Initial Public Offering (IPO) went back into the bank to grow the business or pay out dividends, usually both.

Lynch said it was like buying a company and finding your payment in the desk drawer after the purchase. Whatever the bank was worth before was now worth the same, plus all the new monies. 

I like finding money in the desk drawer! 

 

More than Cash

The S&L days are history now. Without mentioning names, a certain accountant opened accounts in every S&L he could find in NE Wisconsin. 

Interest rates were higher then so tying up money still enjoyed a return. Usually a $1,000 or so in a savings account of some sort qualified you for the maximum allotment. 

When the announcement was made I would sign up for the maximum amount of shares and wait for the day it began trading (usually six months or so at most). 

I didn’t sell as soon as the bell rang. All that new money meant the bank was worth around double the IPO price and if management invested wisely returns could be even larger. Most $10 S&P IPOs traded in the mid-20s a year or so out. I sold when full value reached or close to it. 

Selling wasn’t the first priority. Sometimes rumors of banks looking to consolidate the industry added to profits. (Remember, the prior S&Ls had a lot of cash on the books, making them prime takeover candidates.) I sold many, but also kept a select few. Some didn’t pan out the way I wanted so I sold (usually at only a 100% profit). 

These new banks that did get bought out could generate over a 500% return for the original investors in a few short years.

One important point to clarify. I never bought more shares of these prior S&Ls after they started trading. What I was allotted of the IPO is what I got. Any additional shares purchased would not be cash in the drawer. With so many banking institutions it was obvious this was a smash and grab. 

 

MO Money

The #1 Stock to consider for safety in a bear market and massive profits in a bull market. This could be the best performing stock of the next 10 years! #stock #investing #cash #bullmarket #bearmarket #bull #bear #market #stockmarket #1What does the demutualization of savings & loans have to do with Altria (our stock in the spotlight) or any other stock investment?

While it is true the massive profits from S&Ls is over, plenty of lessons can be learned. IPOs are a risky venture and not for most investors. (I don’t recommend IPOs because the good ones are bought out by the large funds and the poor ones you don’t want.)

Many companies have hidden treasures buried in their financials. Reading the balance sheet will not reveal these gems. For that you need to read company SEC filings like the 10-K (annual report) and 10-Q (quarterly report). 

 

Risks

MO is in the tobacco business even as they work hard to transform into a smoke-free company.

Transformation usually has some pain. Couple that with a large number of funds and investors refusing to invest in tobacco for ethical reasons and you have a unique environment. 

Tobacco use is down. A lot! Cigarette volumes are dropping around 5% a year now as vaping is gaining ground. This cash-cow of the industry is facing serious threats. 

Constantly raising prices dulls the pain, but eventually a limit will be reached where the negative elasticity from price increases turns positive*. Cigarette usage peaked in 1952 and has declined slowly since, only to accelerate with other alternatives.

No matter how positive a picture I paint the remainder of this post on MO does not subtract from the issues facing MO as tobacco use decreases.

Every investment, even those juicy S&L demutualizations, had risks. 

 

Know What You Own

Some businesses have loads of cash sitting around, like AAPL. AAPL has something like $47 per share in cash in its accounts. AAPL closed the day I’m writing this at $200.48 per share. That means about 23% of your investment in AAPL is buying the cash in the checkbook. Looked at another way, the $200 price minus the $47 cash per share means investors are valuing AAPL’s enterprise at about $153 per share currently. 

Unlike AAPL, MO doesn’t carry large amounts of cash per share on the books. Compared to normal operating expenses, MO generally uses most of its cash in operations and returns the rest to shareholders in the form of a dividend and share buybacks fairly quickly.

However, Altria has some very interesting assets under the hood. MO owns 10.1% of Anheuser-Busch Inbev NV (BUD). BUD is one of the largest brewers in the world with over 400 beer brands. 

BUD closed with a market cap today (August 12, 2019) of $163 billion. MO, for comparison has a market cap of $85.9 billion at today’s close. In other words, MO owns $16.463 billion of BUD, or just over 19% of the price MO is trading for at today’s close. 

Put another way, almost $9 of each share of MO is really BUD! (MO has just under 1.9 billion shares outstanding.)

With MO closing today at 45.98 and BUD nearly $9 of that price means everything else MO owns and does is valued by traders (hard to call them investors) at ~ $37 per share.

 

Holy Smoke!

The cigarette business still brings in the bulk of profits used to pay those juicy dividends. This year marks 50 straight years of dividend increases.

Investments like BUD pay a dividend to MO each year so MO has cash flow while BUD grows its business. 

Not all of MO’s investments pay dividends. . . yet. Late last year MO opened the checkbook (added debt) to buy 35% of Juul (vaping) for $12.8 billion and another $1.8 billion for 45% of Cronos Group (CRON) (weed). MO also purchased 80% of on! (oral nicotine)for $372 million in early June this year.

on! is a small investment and not large enough for this discussion. 

CRON is a very long-term play in the expanding marijuana market. I don’t expect CRON to make an equity contribution to MO for at least 5 years, probably longer.

To keep this simple let’s assume on!, CRON and other minor investments held by MO are worth zero. They do have value since MO could always sell the CRON shares they hold. $1.8 billion of a $85.9 billion market cap is only 2% of the stock price, or less than a dollar per share.

 

Growth Engine

If you can swallow your ethics and see your way to ownership of some MO it might be worth your time. While other cigarette companies are facing the same sales declines, only MO has a real plan to live, even thrive, another day. 

Find hidden assets owned bu public companies. Find the secret stash some companies hide from investors. Unlock the wealth. #unlock #wealth #stocks #secret #hidden #income #investmentsMO has always made investments in its future. The company also thinks long and hard about their shareholders. (Maybe because nobody else will be their friend.) Dividends at the company have always been rich. Spin-offs in the past (Kraft and Phillip Morris International come to mind) have also unlocked shareholder value.

All that aside, I think Juul has the possibility to be the best investment MO has ever made. At the beginning of this year Juul was expected to generate $3.4 billion in sales. On the latest earnings conference call, Chairman and CEO, Howard A. Willard III, said Juul sales grew 194% in the first half of 2019! And this is a slow down?

By this accountant’s calculations, the current growth rate pegs Juul for $3.8 billion in sales for 2019. To top it off, Juul is expected to make an equity contribution (sorta like a dividend) to MO later this year! Willard said it would be an immaterial amount, but an equity payment to MO only a year after purchase! Material equity contributions might be sooner than anticipated.

Juul has plenty of issues domestically. Regardless the outcome in the U.S., Juul is set to have a massive international business as well. There are certain to be setbacks, but Juul is set to be a massive player in the nicotine market. And MO is the perfect partner with experience handling these issues.

Juul sales growth rates must come down in a few years.  At these growth rates Juul would have over $100 billion in sales in 5 years. MO had just under $20 billion in sales last year. 

Juul cannibalizes MO’s cigarette business while doing the same to every competitor domestically and increasingly internationally.

I do not believe MO’s investment in Juul is worth only $12.8 billion. I think it is more. Someday MO may absorb all of Juul or spin it off. I don’t know the future. Regardless, MO will see the value of Juul climb a lot higher in an unnamed accountant’s opinion. 

It is not inconceivable for MO’s ownership in Juul to be worth more than the rest of the company combined. Juul has the promise of a fat dividend stream in the near future.

Within a few years MO will be growing faster than they have in memory as BUD, CRON, on!, Juul and other investments add to profits. Dividends are currently safe and still growing. It is easy to see where future dividends will come from.

 

Final Sales Pitch

MO is a steal because too many don’t consider investing in tobacco. That is a shame. Reasonable values are hard to come by at current market prices. I invest to make a profit and expect you do as well. Therefore MO should be a consideration. 

Altria is changing. Once a cigarette company, is now transforming into a better company. Vaping isn’t a perfect solution, but it is better than smoking. Beer isn’t good for you and I doubt weed is either. Good for you or not, people keep buying things they want and they want nicotine.

MO has a solid management team willing to work for the shareholders. That is hard to find these days. MO buys back stock, but gives the bulk of profits to owners in cash (dividends). While MO has risks there is a lot to like about this company. It’s a business I want to own and do.

MO also has a serious competitive advantage. Regulations and limited advertising opportunities keep upstarts at bay. MO’s commanding lead allows them to control the market. Juul has a similar lead in vaping. Now you know why MO bought 35% of Juul. The closest competitor will be a very distant second. 

Warren Buffett once said about tobacco companies: the product costs a penny to make and is addictive. What’s not to like? 

I think Buffett never bought MO because he wants to keep a clean reputation. Coca-Cola was as far as he could go with an addictive product.

And remember this: People risked (and in some states still risk) going to prison for a decade or longer to smoke weed, a non-addictive drug according to many. 

Nicotine is addictive. What are the odds people will stop using it?

Exactly.

The market is open tomorrow. All those who don’t like tobacco are selling. You might want to pick some of that up while you can at a reasonable price.

Oh, and the dividend is slated for an increase in two weeks. Nothing like getting a raise the first month on the job.

 

* Price changes have an element of elasticity. If sales drop 10% when prices are increased 10% we say it is elastic. If sales drop only 2% when prices climb 10% we say it has negative elasticity. When the opposite happens (10% price increase causes sales to decline 12%) it has positive elasticity. Economics students will note price elasticity of demand is always negative because the demand curve slop is leftward. A better way to say this is tobacco price are currently inelastic (sales drop less than the price increase). However, a  point will come when they are elastic (sales drop faster than price increases). You can read more here if you want a technical review of price elasticity

 

More Wealth Building Resources

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QuickBooks is a daily part of life in my office. Managing a business requires accurate books without wasting time. QuickBooks is an excellent tool for managing your business, rental properties, side hustle and personal finances.

cost segregation study can reduce taxes $100,000 for income property owners. Here is my review of how cost segregation studies work and how to get one yourself.

Worthy Financial offers a flat 5% on their investment. You can read my review here.