Cigarette Makers Shut Out of Stock Surge
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. cigarette makers were being shut out of the stock surge on Wall Street on Friday, with analysts saying litigation fears continue to dampen any rebound in the tobacco sector.
On a day that saw the New York Stock Exchange impose trading curbs at mid-morning when the index soared 210 points, then climbed 50 points higher to 11308.50, shares of the nation's two biggest tobacco companies slipped below where they opened on the day. Philip Morris Cos. Inc. (NYSE:MO - news), the world's largest tobacco company and a member of the Dow 30, slipped 1/16 to 26-1/2. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Corp. (NYSE:RJR - news), the nation's second-biggest tobacco company, was off 1/8 to 21-3/8.
``It's pretty pathetic,'' Bonnie Herzog of Credit Suisse First Boston, said, comparing the tobacco sector to the rest of the market. ``It has got to be concern over litigation that is preventing the market from pushing the stock prices up.''
That concern is rooted in courthouse battles at both the federal and state level. In Florida, big tobacco faces potentially crippling lump-sum damages in the penalty phase of the Engle case, named after Miami Beach doctor Howard Engle who suffers from emphysema.
In the first phase of the trial, a six-member jury this summer ruled that U.S. tobacco companies were liable for ailments ranging from cancer to heart and lung disease among smokers in the state. Some experts have said damages could reach $300 billion to $500 billion.
But in a move seen as a positive for the cigarette industry, the Florida Supreme Court on Nov. 3 asked for legal briefs on a tobacco industry request to block a potentially giant lump-sum damage award.
Industry experts are divided on whether the Supreme Court will take the case, but a decision is expected in the next four weeks.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether the Food and Drug Administration can regulate cigarettes and the U.S. Justice Department filed a civil suit in September to recover the $20 billion the federal government spends each year on smoking-related costs.
``There is no news today from the sector that should suggest underperformance,'' Martin Feldman of Salomon Smith Barney said, pointing to concern about the Engle case ``and some continuing fears about the Department of Justice claim.''
Analysts said the tobacco stocks should continue to lag, at least until a decision comes out of Florida.
``We are going to continue to see a tight trading range until we hear from the Florida Supreme Court,'' Herzog said.