U.S. Tobacco stocks fall as trial gets underway
NEW YORK, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Nervous investors pushed U.S. tobacco stock prices down on Monday as the penalty phase in the landmark Florida sick-smokers case got underway in Miami with potentially hundreds of billions of dollars at stake.
Philip Morris Cos. Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Holdings Inc., the nation's two biggest cigarette makers, along with the parent companies of smaller players such as Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. and Lorillard Tobacco Co. all saw their shares fall between 4 and 6 percent.
Tobacco analysts said the sell-off was nothing more than nerves on the part of investors as a trial with so much at stake begins, though they do not expect any decision for weeks. They also expect the stocks to remain under pressure.
``The stocks' weakness has nothing to do with anything incremental coming out of the Engle case, but just seems the fears that the second phase has started,'' William Pecoriello, of Sanford C. Bernstein said.
``But we knew last week that Phase II was starting, so it just seems to be the psychology'' of what is at stake, he said.
On the New York Stock Exchange, shares of New York-based Philip Morris, the maker of the Marlboro brand, fell about 6 percent, or 1-1/2 to 23-11/16, while RJR, the parent of the Camel brand maker, tumbled 1 to 20-11/16. Stock in Loews Corp., which controls 8 percent of the U.S. cigarette market through Lorillard, plummeted 3-7/8 to 67.
American depositary receipts of British American Tobacco Plc (quote from Yahoo! UK & Ireland: parent of No. 3 U.S. cigarette company Brown & Williamson, fell 9/16 to 13-3/8, not far above their 52-week low of 13-1/8.
Officials at Loews had no comment on the 3 point drop. The company is expected to post earnings on Wednesday.
Investor anxiety was sparked two weeks ago after a Florida state appeals court refused to shelter U.S. tobacco companies from punitive damages in the case, a decision that sent the stocks to or near all-time lows.
A six-member jury must now determine whether to set a monetary award in the case and a judge will then decide whether the big tobacco companies must make an immediate payment of any lump-sum damages award or the posting of a massive cash bond if the industry looses again.
Analysts said they believe the day's sell-off is unwarranted given the expected length of the penalty phase.
``The three individual trials that make up this phase will last six to eight weeks, so the weakness today is ridiculous because nothing has happened,'' Bonnie Herzog of Credit Suisse First Boston said, predicting a verdict won't be heard until the end of the year or the first part of next year.
Herzog also said she expects weakness in tobacco stocks while the second phase is being tried.
``But by the end of the second phase, investors will know whether or not the industry will be able to appeal without posting a bond, and that appears to be the question of the day. I don't think the industry will have to post a bond, and that will be proven by Jan. 2000,'' Herzog said.