Altria Profit Up 18% on Tobacco Results

Altria Group Inc. (MO), the company behind the top-selling Marlboro cigarette brand, said Tuesday its fourth-quarter profit rose 18 percent on strong international tobacco results, boosted by acquisitions and higher pricing.

The owner of the Philip Morris tobacco operations and Kraft Foods (KFT) also gave a cautious outlook for 2006, pointing to higher excise taxes on cigarettes in Spain and the food business's restructuring, among other reasons. On Monday, Kraft announced Monday it would cut 8,000 jobs — or 8 percent of its workforce — and shutter 20 plants worldwide over the next three years.

"I am nevertheless confident that we have the strategic wherewithal and resources to manage the challenges ahead and successfully seize the considerable opportunities ahead of us," said Louis C. Camilleri, chief executive officer of New York-based Altria.

Altria shares fell $1.06, or 1.4 percent, to $72. 85 in premarket trading.

Investors are anxiously awaiting for Altria to split up its businesses. But the company must first clear one high hurdle — the appellate review of the $145 billion Engle case in Florida. That state's Supreme Court is reviewing the punitive award in the class action case that was overturned on appeal.

In the fourth quarter ended Dec. 31, Altria earned $2.29 billion, or $1.09 per share, compared with net income of $1.95 billion, or 94 cents a share.

Quarterly revenue increased 9 percent to $24.49 billion from $22.38 billion. Revenue in the 2005 quarter included $582 million from acquisitions, favorable currency of $136 million and an extra week's benefit at Kraft.

For the full year, Altria's net income rose 11 percent to $10.44 billion, or $4.99 per share, up from $9.42 billion, or $4.56 per share, in 2004.

Revenue increased 9 percent to $97.85 billion in 2005 from $89.61 billion in the previous year.

"Overall, we achieved solid results in 2005, with strong income growth in our tobacco businesses partially offset by weaker results in food," Camilleri said.

Altria said it expected 2006 earnings of $4.85 to $4.95 per share from continuing operations, including about 36 cents per share in Kraft restructuring charges, unfavorable currency of 14 cents per share, and about 10 cents per share for lower tobacco income in Spain.

"We enter 2006 with considerable momentum," Camilleri said. "However, circumstances affecting some of (Philip Morris International's) key markets, most notably Spain, dictate a cautious earnings outlook this early in the year. In addition, unfavorable currency, Kraft's restructuring costs and the inclusion of an extra week of results at Kraft in 2005 will make for difficult comparisons this year."