Philip Morris May Cut Prices
Philip Morris may be on the verge of cutting prices for one or more of its core cigarette brands, according to a research report.
"Our industry contacts continue to confirm our belief that a major strategic change could be announced on Jan. 6," said Bonnie Herzog, an analyst at Salomon Smith Barney, in a note on Monday. "There is a good chance the company announces a drastic change to its pricing and promotional strategy."
In the last few months, the large price gap between Philip Morris' premium brands and deep-discount brands has goaded smokers to trade down. An influx of illegal cigarettes has also taken its toll. Most recently, Philip Morris backed away from 2003 earnings guidance of 8% to 10% growth.
According to Herzog, a shift in strategy would likely include price cuts for Philip Morris' discount brand, Basic. It also could involve lower prices at the tobacco giant's four core cigarette products -- Marlboro, Parliament and Virginia Slims, in addition to Basic -- she said.
"Depending on the strategic change announced, this may be the catalyst we're looking for to get more aggressive on the stock, especially if there is a selloff on the news," said Herzog.
A Philip Morris spokesman, Brendan McCormick, wouldn't comment on Herzog's speculation.
Ann Gurkin, an analyst at Davenport & Co., said a possible price cut would be negative for the company in the short term because of the impact on margins, but it could be positive for the long term. "Any effort to narrow the gap is a positive in our view," she said. "It is something that could potentially stop people from switching to deep-discount brands. And it would be good for the industry."
Others said the promotions Philip Morris is already doing are enough to stabilize prices over time.
If Philip Morris rolls back wholesale pricing, Herzog thinks it could be a 65 cent-per-pack decrease on Marlboro, Basic, Parliament and Virginia Slims, possibly starting Feb. 3 and ending a few months later.
Under that scenario, the analyst forecasts 2003 earnings of $4.73 a share, or 4% year-over-year growth. The effect of lower prices short term on price gaps would be minimal, however.
Longer-term or more aggressive price cuts would have a bigger impact on the disparity in price. But they would also take a larger chunk out of the tobacco company's 2003 earnings.
Already, analysts have said Philip Morris' promotions are costing too much. Partly for that reason, Morgan Stanley analyst David Adelman lowered his 2003 earnings estimate for the company last week.
Philip Morris was lately off 43 cents, or 1.1%, at $39.37, but above its worst levels of the day, amid price-cut talk. The stock was the most actively traded on the New York Stock Exchange.