“Quarterly Paychecks from America’s Most Hated Company”

By Travis Johnson, Stock Gumshoe, July 17, 2008

Today I’m looking at a teaser ad from Andrew Gordon of Investors Daily Edge — I’ve looked at a couple of Gordon’s teaser picks over the past year or so, one good (SunPower) and one very bad (Microvision). Apparently now his focus has moved a bit, he’s not talking about breakout high tech companies these days, but about stable dividend payers — so he at least knows how to change his spots when the leaf he’s sitting on withers and dies.

With the current panics in the market, I expect we’ll continue to see more of this kind of focus from the teasermeisters — stability, safety, and dividends. Of course, they’ll probably largely still stay away from the best dividend payers, the big banks, but I imagine I’ll be seeing many more income oriented ads in the months to come. Greed works better than fear as an advertising ploy most of the time, but sometimes investors are so afraid already that they can’t quite bring themselves to reach for the real, over-the-top greed impulse that is demanded for a stock that’s promised to provide 1,000% gains.

So we have here a company that has been raising its dividend consistently for 37 years, and that is likely to be issuing a big special dividend of some kind this fall, according to Gordon. That might start some little bells of recognition a-tingling in your cranium, but we do get a bit more.

He talks a bit about the “power of the shareholder” in forcing Microsoft to pay a special dividend when their cash hoard got entirely out of control, and in forcing a higher bid from JP Morgan when Bear Stearns shareholders objected to the $2 deal that was made at the point of a (metaphorical) gun. And he intimates that this power will force the company in question to keep paying out high dividends, and to issue a large dividend sometime in early September — he gives the date of September 8, specifically.

And we’re told that this company has $4.81 billion in cash, and will probably be issuing a dividend of $606 million.

Add in the fact that he says this is the “most hated company in America” (and it’s not Microsoft), and the Gumshoe’s mighty Thinkolator can reveal, with abundant certainty, that this is …

Altria (MO)

I suppose it might be an exaggeration to say that this is the “most hated” company — there are, after all, plenty of shareholders who love it, as opposed to the shareholders of, let’s say, General Motors or General Electric these days. But I certainly don’t personally have much fondness for the company, and I don’t personally buy tobacco stocks.

Just as an aside, since this always comes up in reference to “ethical investing” or “social investing” or “responsible investing” — I don’t care whether or not you own shares of Altria, or whether or not you smoke (as long as you do it downwind of me and don’t litter). I have no need to force my opinions on anyone else, and I’m under no illusion that my avoidance of the shares of Altria or Lorillard will have any impact on the company or anyone else. I just know that there are thousands of companies I can own shares of, and I see no reason to buy shares in one that I don’t like — I do not avoid mutual funds that might own shares of Altria, so it’s quite possible that I’m a passive shareholder to some degree, at least through indexing.

And for what it’s worth, I’m happy to own gambling and liquor stocks. And I spent a fair amount of time at a blackjack table with a nice glass of scotch not too long ago.

When you talk about the stock of Philip Morris/Altria, however, it’s hard not to be impressed — they still have a very nice dividend (about 5.5%, though it has been higher in recent years), and they have been reorganizing the company fairly dramatically to try to boost returns. If you look at a chart and see the massive drops over the past year, those were for spinoffs — first for part of Kraft, then for the huge Philip Morris International (PM), so what we’re going to eventually be left with is Altria, the domestic cigarette business that is in slow decline but pays a nice dividend. And as the legal risk seemed to slowly leech from the stock with the various settlements with states and other plaintiffs, the stock has spent several years climbing nicely on the back of a huge cash flow and a nice dividend.

If you’re looking for growth, PM is your play — there are a lot more potential Marlboro smokers in Asia than there are in the US; and if you like the old food business you might as well just buy Kraft, but if you do like the US cigarette business, and you want some nice, probably growing dividends, then MO may be worth a look. The big competitors, in case you’re interested in comparing, are Lorillard (LO), which I’ve heard a few analysts speak of with enthusiasm lately, and British American Tobacco (BTI) and Reynolds American (RAI). If you like spinoffs, Lorillard is the one that might be slightly under the radar in this group, they recently separated from former parent Loews (L).

All of those companies have well-above-average dividends, and they pay out a hefty portion of their income as dividends, meaning that they have a high “payout ratio” — many of them are well above 60%, which indicates to me that they don’t have a lot of reinvesting to do in the business. MO actually has a lower payout ratio than most, at least if you look backward, but I think we can expect that it will be similar to the others as we move forward.

And the dividend specifics? They do have $4.81 billion in cash as of their last filing, and cash flow of several times that annually. That $4.81 billion is only $2 and change per share, however, so it’s not overwhelming for a company of this size. The September 8 date is a decent guess for the next ex-dividend date, but though the $606 million sounds dramatic that would really just be the regular dividend. If they paid the same dividend next quarter as they did this quarter, that would be 29 cents a share … and if you multiply that by the 2.09 billion shares outstanding you get $606 million.

So, it might be a stock you want to consider — but there’s no reason I can imagine why you’d need to rush. Or pay up for a subscription to Investors Daily Edge if you don’t want one, not while your friendly neighborhood Gumshoe is on the case!

By the way, he did promise in this ad a few more of those “special reports” that we see so often as bonuses to encourage a signup. I’m sure they’re worth thousands of dollars apiece, but just so you can get a lil’ head start on your own, the two companies he writes about in the report called “Top Two for Total Return” are …

“A 184 year old U.S. company that owns some of the leading smokeless tobacco and premium wine brands.”

That’s UST (UST), which sells Copenhagen and Skoal as well as the Ste. Michelle wines from a variety of fine wineries, mostly in Washington State.

and …

“A REIT that owns 405 commercial properties in top markets throughout the United States as of December 2006. The stock of this trust has appreciated over 55% in the last two and a half years… and it still pays nearly a 4% yield.”

If those numbers are all from December, 2006, as I would guess they might be, then this is in all likelihood Weingarten Realty Trust (WRI) — they do own 405 commercial properties, mostly strip malls but also some industrial centers. As of the beginning of 2007 they had gone up about 55% over 2-1/2 years, during a remarkably pleasant time for REITs, and they were yielding in the neighborhood of 4%.

Today, the shares have co