Altria to Quit Smoking in Europe

Its second huge spin-off, of Philip Morris International, aims to split faster-growing overseas tobacco business from U.S. litigation constraints.
Stephen TaubAugust 29, 2007

Altria Group Inc., which spun off Kraft Foods earlier this year, plans to do the same with its Lausanne, Switzerland-based Philip Morris International Inc. Analysts long have speculated that Altria, the maker of Marlboro and other cigarette brands, wants to separate the faster-growing European business from a U.S. market hampered by litigation and sluggish tobacco sales.

New York-based Altria said that details and timing of the Philip Morris International spin-off — to Altria shareholders — would be considered by directors at their regularly scheduled meeting next January 30.

Final arrangements will reflect a favorable ruling from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, an opinion of tax counsel, the effectiveness of a registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the execution of several inter-company agreements, among other things, it said.

One analyst quoted by Bloomberg News speculated that Philip Morris USA, based in Richmond, Virginia, would likely increase efforts to develop Marlboro snuff and other smokeless products. With cigarette consumption declining 1 percent to 2 percent a year in the U.S., and federal tobacco excise tax increases potentially looming, investors have favored spinning off the international unit to avoid it being hamstrung by such U.S. problems, when the European market was much rosier.

Altria also boosted its quarterly dividend by 8.7 percent, to 75 cents a share, and announced a management structure for the companies once they are separated. Louis C. Camilleri, currently Altria chairman and CEO, would assume that role at Philip Morris International, while Michael E. Szymanczyk, currently CEO of Philip Morris USA, would be named Altria chairman and CEO.

“Today’s announcement underscores our sustained and determined commitment to create enduring long-term shareholder value. I am convinced that this transaction will enhance growth at both Altria and Philip Morris International,” said Camilleri.

In response to the latest spinoff news — coming after the April spin-off of Kraft — Standard & Poor’s cut its rating outlook on Altria from positive to stable, but affirmed other ratings, including the BBB-plus long-term corporate credit rating and the A-2 short-term rating. It noted that Altria had approximately $9.1 billion in total debt outstanding as of June 30.

“Altria’s outlook revision reflects a moderately weaker business risk profile, as a substantial narrowing of Altria’s business portfolio and geographic diversity resulting from the spin-off of PMI more than offsets a somewhat improved U.S. litigation environment and the company’s entrenched market leadership position in domestic cigarette manufacturing,” said Standard & Poor’s credit analyst Kenneth Shea. “The U.S. cigarette market is a mature, highly competitive industry, and overall consumer demand is expected to continue to decline over the long term.”

Moody’s Investors Service affirmed its Baa1 long-term senior unsecured debt rating and Prime-2 short-term rating of Altria with a stable outlook.

Meanwhile, Kraft has been active in M&A since its own spin-off, and today named a new CFO.

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