Altria's (MO) Move to End Noncompete Agreement 'Makes Sense'

September 30, 2022 10:02 AM EDT
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On Friday, Altria Group (NYSE: MO) said in an SEC filing that it exercised its option to be released from its noncompete agreement with vaping company Juul Labs Inc.

The Marlboro maker exercised the option almost four years after acquiring a 35% stake in Juul, at the peak of its popularity. The move means Altria can acquire another e-cigarette company.

Altria has faced several problems since its investment in Juul. Earlier this year, the FDA issued marketing denial orders for Juul products in the US. In addition, it has faced significant scrutiny over its marketing of nicotine products.

Following today's news, Morgan Stanley analyst Pamela Kaufman, who has an Equal-Weight rating and $43 price target on Altria, said in a note to clients that since Altria's $450 million carrying value for JUUL is less than 10% of its initial $12.8 billion investment, the company had the option to terminate the noncompete clause, but has to give up certain shareholder rights.

"Overall, we view this as a positive development as MO has been precluded from participating in the e-vapor category outside of its JUUL investment and JUUL's future looks increasingly uncertain following its marketing denial order from the FDA in June," wrote Kaufman. "We would not be surprised to see MO acquire capabilities from smaller players in the category. In addition, MO's ongoing investment in JUUL will allow MO to continue to participate in JUUL's potential recovery."

Elsewhere, Cowen analyst Vivien Azer, who has a Market Perform rating and $45 price target for Altria shares, told investors the move is understandable.

"It makes sense to us that MO is creating optionality for itself in the vapor category, especially given where the company stands in relation to other global peers in terms of exposure to RRPs. We expect MO to deploy a buy over build strategy," wrote Azer.

By Sam Boughedda

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