A good part of the increase in shares can be attributed to increased consumer confidence, but there is speculation that Altria, which owns Marlboro, may re-combine with Philip Morris International (PM) - Get Report as the tobacco industry continues to consolidate.
"Since we don't envision a day that PM formally denies an interest in acquiring MO, we believe some level of M&A speculation will continue to support a floor under MO's valuation," Wells Fargo analyst Bonnie Herzog wrote prior to earnings. "Therefore, we continue to place a 70% probability on a PM/MO combo and believe PM could pay at least $76-78/share for MO based on an EV/EBITDA deal multiple in line with [British American Tobacco/Reynolds American] (16.0x LTM EBITDA)."
British American Tobacco recently announced that it would be buying the remaining stake in Reynolds American (RAI) it didn't already own in a deal valued at $49 billion.
Analysts surveyed by Yahoo! Finance expect the company to earn 67 cents a share on $4.8 billion in revenue for the fourth quarter.
Over the past 12 months, shares of Altria gained nearly 17%, excluding dividends, compared to the near 19% gain in the S&P 500.
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Wells Fargo's Herzog believes that changes to U.S. tax policy could also help Altria. "Potential tax policy changes could broadly benefit staples, with our interactive tax model suggesting the most upside for MO, RAI, and most U.S. food companies," Herzog wrote. She also noted that a tax repatriation holiday "could lead to an increase in share buybacks, deleveraging, and M&A with average upside to EPS growth for [consumer] staples."
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Jefferies analyst Owen Bennett, who has a hold rating and a $69 price target on Alitra, believes that Marlboro's market share will come under pressure over the next 12 months, due to steps Reynolds is taking with Winston. "However, with ABI accretion meaning Altria's earnings model should still be delivered and further clarity around supportive corporation tax cuts in the year, any potential de-rating should be limited," Bennett wrote to clients.
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In a separate note, Wells Fargo's Herzog noted that there is limited downside to Altria shares, even if Philip Morris and its former parent company don't merge, with the downside being $69 a share. Wells Fargo has an outperform rating on Altria.