What Altria Group's Latest Dividend Increase Really Means for Investors

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Altria Group (NYSE: MO) has been one of the best long-term investments in the stock market. For more than half a century, the tobacco giant has overcome huge obstacles to deliver consistent share price increases to its shareholders, and it has also made dividend growth a priority.

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Late last month, Altria continued its past practice of increasing its dividend on an annual basis, extending a streak that goes back nearly 50 years. Altria's latest move highlights the success that the tobacco giant has enjoyed even as a secular decline in cigarette smoking has resulted in falling sales volumes and threatened the long-term business model that Altria and its peers have used for decades. In particular, the optimism that Altria keeps showing with its capital return policies reflects the company's ability to keep making the most from its business even under sometimes difficult conditions in the industry.

What Altria said about its dividend

Altria's press releases about dividend increases are typically terse, and this year's installment was no exception to that rule. The tobacco company's board of directors voted to increase the quarterly dividend by $0.05 per share, or just over 8%, to $0.66 per share. Shareholders as of the middle of September can expect to receive the larger payment in early October.

With the move, Altria pushed the dividend yield on its stock above the 4% mark once again. That gives the Marlboro maker a yield that roughly doubles that of the broader stock market, a status that Altria has long enjoyed. Altria also noted that the move was consistent with its long-term target of paying out about 80% of its adjusted earnings per share to shareholders through dividends. The move marked the 51st time that Altria has made a dividend increase over the past 48 years, a track record that would have made the company a Dividend Aristocrat were it not for the corporate spinoffs that it has made throughout its history.

Altria sees a bright future

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Altria's statement about the dividend increase being in line with its expectations for future earnings is an important one, as it signals the tobacco giant's belief that it will be able to keep growing its bottom line. That's consistent with what Altria said in its most recent earnings report, as it predicted growth of 7.5% to 9.5% in earnings for 2017. The company's long-term earnings growth target has also been in roughly the same neighborhood, which explains in large part why Altria's dividend increases have tended to be in the 8% to 9% range over the past several years.

Altria also showed that it believes its stock is a good value by authorizing an expansion to its share repurchase program. The most recent quarter brought an additional $1 billion to the buyback table, coming after Altria bought back more than that amount in the second quarter of 2017 alone.

Threats on the horizon?

That said, not every investor is convinced that Altria will be able to keep bucking adverse trends in the industry forever. Altria continues to face threats on the regulatory front, and the most recent one involving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's desire to regulate nicotine content in cigarettes sent the stock price down sharply. At the same time, cigarette taxes remain a popular measure for cash-strapped state governments to pursue, and such measures incrementally depress consumption still further. Altria has thus far been able to offset volume declines by using its pricing power to boost revenue and profit, but some see a limit to how far the company can go before the positive impact from such moves diminishes.

Yet Altria is taking steps to try to ensure its long-term viability. Moves in the e-cigarette and alternative products space have shown some promise, and Altria's research in the realm of non-traditional products has started to pay off with commercial success. For now, Altria gets an inconsequential portion of its revenue from such products, but with efforts to get FDA approval for them, Altria hopes that they'll become an increasingly important part of its business going forward. Altria also sees its stake in beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD) as a key piece of its corporate holdings, allowing the tobacco company to participate in another potential source of growth.

Dividend investors are happy about Altria's most recent dividend increase, and the stock has reliably rewarded shareholders for decades. Given the company's track record of overcoming threats in the past, Altria has every intention of ensuring that income investors keep reaping the benefits of owning its stock in the years to come.

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Dan Caplinger has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Anheuser-Busch InBev NV. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.