Altria’s future largely rests on Marlboro cigarettes

Marlboro cigarettes Also: Why did the bottom fall out of Janus Forty’s shares?

Question: I’m concerned about my shares of Altria Group Inc. What is the latest outlook?

Answer: It is no secret that the U.S. cigarette industry is in a long-term decline because of the health risks of smoking.

Its sales could be hurt by a Food and Drug Administration mandate for more-graphic health warnings on cigarette packs that takes effect in October 2012. Potential litigation and increased taxation could cut into earnings.

But Altria, which last year earned $3.2 billion on revenue of $23.6 billion, remains a powerful firm that appeals to many investors because of its commanding industry position and regular dividend as well as the unlikelihood that any new tobacco rivals will emerge.

The company dominates the U.S. tobacco business, with 50% of the market. It is No. 1 in the U.S. in sales of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco and is No. 2 in cigars.

Altria’s future depends in large part on its Marlboro cigarettes. The world-famous brand accounts for more than two-thirds of the firm’s operating profit, but in recent years some younger smokers have been attracted to competitors’ products.

The company’s subsidiaries include Philip Morris USA; U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., which makes the Skoal and Copenhagen brands; and John Middleton Co., which makes cigars and pipe tobacco. It also owns 27% of SAB Miller, the world’s second-largest brewer.

Shares of Altria have gained 27% year to date. Its third-quarter earnings rose 28% from a year earlier, boosted by higher cigarette prices and increased sales of smokeless tobacco.

Analysts on average expect Altria’s earnings for the full year to be up 9% from 2009, followed by a 6% gain next year, according to Thomson Reuters. That compares with increases of 14% and 18% projected for the overall tobacco industry.

Wall Street analyst ratings on Altria shares consist of two “strong buys,” two “buys” and eight “holds.”

• Janus Forty mutual fund is not so bad

Question: Why did the bottom fall out of Janus Forty’s shares?

Answer: This mutual fund, which invests in large-capitalization “growth” stocks, has encountered more than its share of problems in recent years, with a poor performance two years ago overshadowing a rebound last year.

The $6.4-billion fund has returned 6.22% in the last 12 months, putting it at the bottom of its category. Its three-year annualized decline of 5.3% trailed four-fifths of its peers. But the fund’s five-year and 10-year returns put it in the top 15% of its category.

“I still recommend Janus Forty as a core holding and see reason for shareholders to stick with it,” said Kathryn Young, mutual fund analyst with Morningstar Inc., who attributes the portfolio’s below-par returns to a focus on “giant-cap stocks.”

Financial services and the tech hardware sector each represent about one-fifth of Janus Forty’s holdings.

The fund requires a $2,500 minimum initial investment and has an annual expense ratio of 1.2%. There is no sales charge on purchases of fund shares.

source: Los Angeles Times

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