Health and Science

Altria's cannabis investment eats into first-quarter earnings, drives profit down 41%. Shares slide

Key Points
  • Altria on Thursday reported first-quarter earnings and revenue that missed analysts' expectations.
  • Altria's investment in Cronos ate into the tobacco company's first-quarter profits.
  • Ratings agencies downgraded Altria after its investments in Cronos and Juul. 
Altria makes investments into Cronos Group.
Richard Vogel | AP

Altria's investment in Canadian cannabis company Cronos ate into the tobacco company's first-quarter profits, the company said Thursday.

Marlboro cigarette maker Altria's earnings slid 41% from the year before, missing analysts estimates on both profit and revenue. Its stock slid 6% Thursday, closing at $51.41.

Altria's first-quarter net income of $1.12 billion, or 60 cents per share, fell from $1.89 billion, or $1 per share a year earlier. It generated $4.39 billion in net revenue during the first quarter, sliding 6 percent from the prior year and missing Wall Street forecasts of $4.59 billion, according to average estimates compiled by Refinitiv.

Excluding unrealized losses associated with its investment in Cronos and other items, Altria earned 90 cents per share, less than the 92 cents per share expected by analysts surveyed by Refinitiv.

The company excluded $715 million in "special items" from its adjusted earnings, including a $425 million pre-tax loss on derivatives used to purchase more shares in Cronos. The company said the derivatives will cause "significant reported earnings volatility" because they are tied to Cronos' stock price. Fluctuations in derivatives values are non-cash charges.

Altria was also hit with higher financing costs after issuing fresh debt to finance its $1.8 billion investment in Cronos and $12.8 billion stake in Juul. Two ratings companies cut Altria's creditworthiness in December following the deals.

"As expected, Altria's first quarter adjusted diluted EPS declined in the mid-single digit range as we incurred higher interest expense as a result of our recently issued debt, without the full benefit of savings from our cost reduction program, which began to ramp up at the end of the quarter," Altria CEO Howard Willard said in a statement.

Altria in December said it would cut costs about $575 million in annual expenses by the end of the year. In the first quarter, Altria recorded pre-tax charges of $159 million, or 6 cents per share, related to its investments in Juul and Cronos, among other things.

The company is betting on Cronos and Juul for growth as its core cigarette business declines. Cigarette volumes fell about 14 percent from the year-ago quarter. When adjusted for trade inventory movements and one fewer shipping day, the the decline totaled about 5 percent.

Juul's shipment volume grew about 175% in the first quarter, Willard said Thursday on a call with analysts. The company now represents more than 40% of e-vapor category, Altria estimates. However, Juul's growth slowed after it stopped shipping flavored nicotine pods to retailers in the fall, facing pressure from the Food and Drug Administration to stop kids from vaping.

"As we have previously noted, we accept any short-term slowdown resulting from actions to address youth e-vapor use in an effort to preserve the long-term e-vapor opportunities for adults," Willard said.

The Federal Trade Commission earlier this month requested more information from Altria before ruling on its investment into Juul. Willard said Altria will work to answer the FTC's questions promptly.