I scream, you scream, we all scream for … cigarettes, beer, maybe some legal weed.

Which is to say: We all have vices. And at this particular moment in Wall Street’s history, vices might not be so bad – especially if we’re talking about a portfolio built for a certain degree of safety at a moment when risk would seem to be the Street’s predominant character trait.

To that end, I give you Philip Morris (PM), one of the world’s premier vice stocks.

Certainly, the original Big Mo (before it’s split from Altria (MO)) has its issues. The Covid lockdowns pinched traditional retail sales in the recent quarter, while global border closures all but snuffed out duty-free airport sales. Those volumes, though on the mend, won’t rebound quickly. In fact, another bout of weakness is likely as coronavirus cases and deaths escalate going into the fall and winter – particularly in the US, plagued by a self-defeating aversion to public-safety.

But there’s a more-powerful trend at play: Addiction.

While smokes are clearly susceptible to Covid-19, the virus hasn’t suddenly turned humans into machines of objective, healthcare logic. By which I mean, vices are vices and smokers, en masse, are not abandoning, nor will they abandon tobacco, regardless of the health effects. Not gonna happen.

As such, Philip Morris shares – down more than 9% on the year – are set up well as a defensive, income play at a time when income is increasingly relevant amid Fed promises to keep interest rates suppressed for a long time.

Based on its latest dividend payment in July, Philip Morris is paying its investors $4.68 per share every year, a yield just over 6%. Not the highest yield among Big Tobacco, but certainly not trivial in a world of near-zero rates on Treasuries and the sub-1.8% yield on the S&P.

Moreover, as far as Big Mo is concerned, right now is about as good as it gets in terms of yield. This moment represents one of the highest yields Philip Morris. has seen in at least a decade.

Phillip Morris Annualized Yield by Quarter

More important, that yield is attached to what is, statistically, the strongest player in the industry. Philip Morris sports plump profit margins exceeding 24%. Primary competitors such as Altria, Vector Group (VGR), and British American Tobacco (BTI) aren’t even close. Same with return-on-assets, where Philip Morris’s top 20%, well in excess of its industry peers.

The big negative is the company’s underwater book value, a function of its hefty, $24.6 billion debt load. But until interest rates are markedly higher, debt repayment isn’t likely to cause much concern here.

Frankly, that could become even less of a concern as Philip Morris’s new growth engine takes hold: IQOS, a “heat-not-burn” tobacco-delivery system marketed as a risk-reduced product and recently approved by the FDA.

Demand for these e-cigarettes is growing rapidly around the world – 15% to 40% annually, depending on country – and Philip Morris is well positioned to benefit. The company estimates it has just under 15 million IQOS users in a world with 1.3 billion smokers. In other words, the runway here for IQOS adoption is quite long.

As such, packing away some Philip Morris shares and locking in a fat dividend .. there’s no better vice than that.


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