The tobacco industry has produced amazing results over the decades, and Altria (NYSE: MO) has been one of the best-performing stocks of all time. The company behind the Marlboro brand of cigarettes has produced amazing total returns, including both consistent dividend income and impressive share-price appreciation despite facing challenges from plaintiffs' attorneys, government regulators, and consumer advocacy groups. Over time, Altria has done stock splits to reward shareholders, but it's been a while since its last such move, and some investors wonder if a future stock split is likely. Below, we'll look more closely at Altria's stock split history to get some clues about what investors are likely to see going forward.
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Image source: Altria Group.
Altria stock splits
Here are the dates and split ratios for the stock splits that Altria has done in the past:
Data sources: Yahoo! Finance and Altria investor relations.
When Altria has done stock splits in the past
Altria's history of stock splits extends back for decades, giving investors a good idea of when the company decides that a split is appropriate. In the early 1970s, the tobacco giant then known as Philip Morris Companies had seen its stock price trade above the $100 per share mark for a couple of years, climbing as high as $127 before falling back somewhat. The company's 2-for-1 split ended up sending the stock back down in the $50s, and sluggish market conditions kept share prices fairly stable for several years after that.
Interestingly, Altria used a different strategy for its 1979 split. Shares had only risen back toward the $75 level before the tobacco giant made another move, taking shares back down in the mid-$30s following the 2-for-1 split. However, in the bull market of the early and mid-1980s, Altria reverted to its previous method, letting the stock price climb as high as $132 per share before doing a 2-for-1 split.
From there, Altria showed that it didn't want to get into the habit of making successive splits too quickly. The stock took off after the 1987 stock market crash, but the company let it climb far higher before making a more aggressive split move. Shares hit $180 before Altria did a 4-for-1 split that took the stock back into the low $40s. Similarly, in 1997, the stock hit $140 per share before Altria's most recent split, a 3-for-1 move.
Why did Altria stop splitting?
For nearly 20 years, Altria hasn't had a single stock split. But there are a couple of things that the company has done that explain in part the lack of split activity.
First, Altria has maintained extremely high dividend yields that have contributed to total return performance while reducing some of the upward pressure on share prices. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Altria's dividend yield approached 8% at times, with nervousness about litigation threats weighing on the stock but not leading to any changes in the company's dividend strategy.
Second, Altria has made some major corporate moves, spinning off substantial businesses that have had a downward impact on its share price. For instance, by 2007, Altria stock had risen to $90 per share, making some believe that a split might be appropriate. However, the spinoff of Kraft effectively cut its share price by more than $20, reducing the pressure for a split. Even more significant was the spinoff of Philip Morris International, which was actually much larger than Altria's domestic operations and therefore reduced Altria's share price by about two-thirds following its 2008 spinoff. Combined with the financial crisis, Altria shares traded in the teens before recovering.
Will Altria split again soon?
Since then, Altria has performed well, quadrupling its share price while still paying high dividend yields. Yet with the stock at $65 per share, Altria isn't trading at a level that suggests any imminent move to do another stock split. It would take a return to the late 1970s strategy to justify such a move at current prices.
In the longer run, though, Altria has consistently found ways to grow earnings, and shareholders have seen rewards through rising share prices. With a yield of nearly 4%, it could take a while for Altria's stock to climb high enough to break into triple digits and perhaps bring another split. Yet eventually, it seems inevitable that Altria will reach a point at which it will once again renew its stock-split history, with the only question being how long it might take.
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