British American Tobacco PLC (ADR) (BTI) or Imperial Tobacco Group PLC (IMT)? Whom To Buy?

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British American Tobacco PLC (ADR) (NYSEAMEX:BTI)LONDON — Tobacco giants British American Tobacco PLC (ADR) (NYSEAMEX:BTI) and Imperial Tobacco Group PLC (LON:IMT) sell more than 1 trillion cigarettes every year.

Both companies own portfolios of leading cigarette brands, and have consolidated and optimized their large operations so that they are extremely profitable and cash generative — making them top favorites with income investors.

Despite this, there are some big differences between the two firms. So which would I buy to add to my portfolio?

British American Tobacco vs. Imperial Tobacco
I’m going to start with a look at a few key statistics that can be used to provide a quick comparison of these two companies:

Metric British American
Imperial Tobacco
Trailing dividend yield 3.7% 4.7%
5-year average dividend yield 4.5% 4.2%
5-year dividend growth rate 15.3% 11.9%
5-year share price return 79% (5.5%)

I’ve selected the figures above because they tell two different stories. British American Tobacco PLC (ADR) (NYSEAMEX:BTI) has a stronger presence in emerging markets than Imperial Tobacco Group PLC (LON:IMT), and these markets have delivered superior growth in recent years when compared to the relatively mature markets of Europe, where Imperial’s business is focused.

In the wake of the financial crisis, investors bought into British American Tobacco PLC (ADR) (NYSEAMEX:BTI) high yield and growth potential. The firm’s share price has risen by 79% over the last five years, driving down its yield to a more modest 3.7% — well below its five-year average of 4.5%, and below the 4.7% offered by Imperial.

Imperial Tobacco Group PLC (LON:IMT)’s share price has edged lower this year, and in its first-half results last week, the firm reported a 5.9% drop in cigarette volumes, a 9.7% fall in operating profit, and a 22.7% fall in reported earnings per share. However, some of this was due to one-off factors, and the firm expects to deliver modest earnings-per-share growth over the full year.

What’s next?
So far this year, British American Tobacco PLC (ADR) (NYSEAMEX:BTI)‘s shares have risen by 15%, while Imperial’s have dropped 2%. Can BAT continue to outperform its smaller rival, or is now the time for new investors to look again at Imperial?

Analysts’ forecasts are notoriously unreliable, but FTSE 100 companies generally get the benefit of the most comprehensive analysis and tend to deliver fewer surprises than smaller companies.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some forward-looking numbers for British American Tobacco PLC (ADR) (NYSEAMEX:BTI) and Imperial Tobacco Group PLC (LON:IMT). These apply to the companies’ current financial years:

Metric British American
Imperial Tobacco
Forecast P/E ratio 15.7 11.0
Forecast dividend yield 4.2% 5%
Forecast dividend growth 11% 10%
Forecast earnings growth 12% 9%

Both companies are expected to deliver similar earnings and dividend growth this year, but British American Tobacco PLC (ADR) (NYSEAMEX:BTI)’s premium is the price you have to pay for access to its higher-growth markets.

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