It may seem unusual that there is a revolution threatening to shake up a 170-year-old company, but one is taking place among the titans of the tobacco business. And it's changing both the players and the investment opportunities.
It's called vapor. And it's important. "Vapor is the key catalyst in all the deals in our view," Owen Bennett, equity analyst at Jefferies wrote in a recent research note.
And it could be the driver for what once would have seemed the unlikely reunion of Altria (MO - Get Report) with Philip Morris (PM - Get Report) . "We ... think an Altria bid for PM could have greater probability (and makes more financial sense)," Jefferies wrote Monday.
"One strategic rationale for all of the above deals is the attractive growth outlook for the U.S. cigarette profit pool, especially now that litigation risk is largely behind us," Jefferies's Bennett argued. "Macros are supportive, pricing potential is significant and a sizable margin opportunity exists."
Bonnie Herzog of Wells Fargo, and one of the leading tobacco industry analysts, said last month the odds of a Philip Morris and Altria reunion have improved, insisting the current political and macro environment could be pushing the companies into negotiations. She pegs the prospect of a reconciliation at 70%.
The consolidation impulse in the tobacco business was solidified Tuesday with the announcement that Reynolds American (RAI) sweetened its acquisition offer for British American Tobacco to $49.8 billion for the 58% of the company it didn't already own - a deal that will create the world's largest listed tobacco company by revenue and market value.
Do Altria and Philip Morris - the erstwhile partners that split in 2003 to dodge some of the damaging effects of the 1998 American assault on the evil tobacco business - want to sit out the heavyweight championship of the world? Especially when there's a new bullet in the chamber?
Look, you can't spark a cheroot on a television show or movie without branding yourself a subhuman. Or at least an incorrigible blackheart.
But toking on a vapor? Heck, unicorns and My Little Pony could get behind vapor products. It looks organic. Almost healthful. (Though, of course, it's not.)
Nevertheless, "Possible support to sector valuations from vapor could be significant and we believe is yet to be fully appreciated by the market," Jefferies stated. "As the segment gains more traction over the next year (both in terms of volume growth and newsflow) we believe more value will start to be ascribed." The leaders in the segment - and, let's admit, the tobacco business isn't exactly an over-populated environment - will see the most support.
There are multiple benefits for an Altria, Philip Morris reunion, not the least of which might be the prospect of getting rid of that "Altria" moniker. The foreign exchange deficiency that Altria continues to battle would be mitigated. A combined company could prospectively repatriate some capital currently parked overseas, if another of the incoming Trump Administration initiatives is promulgated. And - most importantly - the iQOS vapor platform the two of them are currently developing - one that most analysts believe superior to the product that BAT unveiled recently - could be brought to market more efficaciously.
There is the question of the price. The BAT, Reynolds tie-up valued the latter at nearly 16 times trailing Ebitda. A Philip Morris, Altria link-up should be priced at closer to 15 times trailing Ebitda. With Altria currently trading at about $69 a share, there's not a lot of upside. But the benefits of Trump administration tax cuts and the smoother roll-out of the new vapor product could promise some real energy to the stock.