Stronger profits seen for top U.S. cigarette makers
NEW YORK, July 17 (Reuters) - The two largest U.S. tobacco companies are expected to post higher second-quarter profits this week, reflecting an easing legal climate and some retail stockpiling that has driven up shipment volumes, analysts said.
The $145 billion punitive damage verdict handed down to cigarette makers in the Engle sick-smokers case last week and other litigation may have affected sentiment toward tobacco stocks, but did not impact quarterly earnings, they said.
``It's built into the cost structure of the industry, but there's nothing outstanding to mention in the second quarter,'' Sanford C. Bernstein analyst William Pecoriello said, referring to the impact of the industry's current legal woes.
Philip Morris Cos Inc., the world's largest cigarette company and maker of the leading Marlboro brand, is expected to post quarterly profits of 95 cents per share, at the high end of an expected range of 93 to 96 cents per share among eight analysts who track the stock, according to research firm First Call/Thomson Financial. The New York-based company, which also operates the largest U.S. food company, Kraft Foods Inc., and the Miller Brewing Co., reported earnings of 85 cents per share in the year ago quarter.
Winston-Salem, N.C.-based R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc., whose R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. cigarette brands include Camel and Winston, is expected to report earnings of $1.04 per share, near the top of a tight range of expectations between $1.02 to $1.05 among seven analysts who cover the stock, the research firm said. Last year, R.J. Reynolds reported earnings of 90 cents per share for the quarter.
Overall tobacco shipment volumes are expected to be little changed or slightly higher for the quarter, mainly because of inventory building on expectations of an overall price increase.
``Retailers are anticipating a price increase, and they've been loading up on inventory,'' Davenport & Co.'s Ann Gurkin said, pointing to a trend that prevented sales volumes from declining.
Retailers had anticipated Memorial Day and Independence Day price increases, neither of which materialised, she said.
Some wholesalers also increased inventories during the quarter in anticipation of a price increase by manufacturers, Goldman Sachs tobacco analyst Marc Cohen said.
The cigarette companies raised prices by 13 cents this January and by 18 cents in August 1999, Cohen noted.
Analysts expect Philip Morris' shipment volume to show low single-digit percentage gains, while R.J. Reynold's volume is expected to be down about 2 percent for the quarter.
While Credit Suisse First Boston's Bonnie Herzog expects Philip Morris U.S. volumes to be up 2.5 to 3 percent, she sees international volume little changed mainly because of weakness in duty-free sales, and in German and Central European markets.
R.J. Reynolds volume does not ``usually run in line with the industry growth'' and has not been on track with others in the industry for several quarters, Gurkin said.
Share repurchases are expected to boost earnings per share at both companies, analysts said.
Cohen expects operating profit growth at Philip Morris to climb by 5.6 percent, driven by U.S. tobacco and Kraft North America gains. ``Food continues to be solid,'' with Kraft North America profit likely to rise by more than 6 percent, he said.
Sanford C. Bernstein's Pecoriello expects Philip Morris' domestic and international food business profits to grow about 6 to 7 percent for the quarter, and sees 8 to 9 percent profit growth at Miller.
Looking ahead, Philip Morris will only build on strong results from its food unit after its acquisition of Nabisco Holdings Corp., the maker of Oreo cookies, Ritz crackers and Lifesavers candies. The company also said it plans an initial stock public offering for less than 20 percent of Kraft Foods early next year.
R.J. Reynolds agreed to buy Nabisco Group Holdings, which will become a cash shell after the parent sells its only asset -- an 80 percent stake in Nabisco Holdings. The deal will improve R.J. Reynolds' balance sheet.
Both Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds are expected to report earnings the week of July 17.