What does it take to separate yourself in the tobacco industry? All the companies are inherently tied to tobacco consumption, tobacco taxes and tobacco regulation. The U.S. is dominated by three manufacturers, including Altria Group Inc (NYSE:MO), which sells roughly half of the nearly 500 billion cigarettes sold in the U.S., Reynolds American, Inc. (NYSE:RAI) and the Loews Corporation (NYSE:L) subsidiary Lorillard Inc. (NYSE:LO).
All three major U.S. tobacco companies are now paying a dividend yield in excess of 5%, which, in this low-rate environment, is very enticing. All three of the tobacco companies have also made the foray into the electronic cigarette market. So how does an investor choose the best stock?
I believe that Lorillard Inc. (NYSE:LO) presents investors with the best opportunity in the tobacco industry. According to Imperial Tobacco, Altria Group Inc (NYSE:MO) owns 50% of the U.S. tobacco market share, while Lorillard is in third with 10% of the U.S. market share, leaving tons of room for growth.
Getting to know Big Tobacco
Reynolds American, Inc. (NYSE:RAI) operates R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and the smokeless tobacco company American Snuff Company. The American Snuff brand offers its flagship Grizzly brand. Worth noting is that Reynolds does offer investors a super high-end cigarette, Natural American Spirit, which is also the only USDA certified organic cigarette on the market.
Reynolds American, Inc. (NYSE:RAI) has plans to eliminate various surplus labor over the next few years in order to save $70 million annually by 2015. As for the hot topic e-cigarette category, Reynolds has developed its own patented vapor technology and is testing a new product called Vuse.
Altria Group Inc (NYSE:MO) is at the top when it comes to tobacco sales, but only recently decided to make the entry into the e-cigarette market. However, the company does have a presence in the wine market and its Black & Mild brand is the leader in the “other smoke-ables” category.
Altria Group Inc (NYSE:MO)’s popular tobacco brands include Marlboro, Virginia Slims, Copenhagen and Skoal. Marlboro is the leading cigarette brand in the U.S. and some of Altria’s key plans include the expansion of its distribution of Marlboro Southern Cut and Marlboro NXT into 27 states this year.
Lorillard offers the leading menthol brand, Newport. Lorillard made the first entry by large tobacco companies in the electronic cigarette market with its early 2012 purchase of Blu Ecigs for $135 million. Lorillard is also looking to grow beyond its staple Newport brand by launching new products, which include Newport Smooth Select Menthol cigarettes — these have a flavor of menthol and are made for smokers who prefer a less robust taste unlike Newport. Now let’s get down to what makes Lorillard the top investment in the tobacco industry.
Valuation & volatility
From a valuation standpoint, Lorillard is by far the cheapest, trading at 14 times earnings and 2.62 times sales, versus Altria Group Inc (NYSE:MO) at 16.1 times earnings and 3.2 times sales. Reynolds American, Inc. (NYSE:RAI) is the most expensive at 17.9 times earnings and 3.5 times sales. With a 0.38 beta, which is a common measure of stock price volatility, Lorillard also has the least volatility. Altria has a beta of 0.46 and Reynolds 0.63.
While all three tobacco companies are paying dividend yields of 5%, Lorillard has been one of the top companies at returning capital to shareholders. This includes having upped its dividend payment by almost 80% over the past five years.
Meanwhile, Lorillard has also led the industry when it comes to buying back shares, having reduced its shares outstanding by over 25% over the past five years.
Lorillard also has the lowest dividend payout ratio as a percent of earnings at 70%, compared to Altria’s 80% and Reynolds’ 90%.