Imperial Tobacco Group Plc’s Greatest Weaknesses

Two standout factors undermining an investment in Imperial Tobacco Group plc (LON: IMT).

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british american tobacco / imperial tobaccoWhen I think of cigarette and tobacco producer Imperial Tobacco Group (LSE: IMT) (NASDAQOTH: ITYBY.US), two factors jump out at me as the firm’s greatest weaknesses and top the list of what makes the company less attractive as an investment proposition.

1) Declining revenue

Volumes have been on the wane for some time in the cigarette and tobacco industry. Apart from the obvious trend of people moving away from smoking in the developed world as health-awareness digs deeper with each new generation, in the EU, austerity measures, unemployment, competition from illicit trade, and tough regulation on advertising, are all factors affecting general tobacco-product sales. Imperial Tobacco is also seeing weakness in some of its other main markets, such as Russia. It reveals much to see that volumes in Imperial’s ‘growth-brand’ category recently declined 2% compared to the year-ago figure.

It’s plain to see how Imperial Tobacco is struggling with its revenue figures when we look at the firm’s recent record:

Year to September 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Revenue (£m) 26,517 28,173 29,223 28,574 28,269

2) Declining dividend cover

With revenue starting to slip, Imperial has been targeting cost reduction measures and raising end-product prices to squeeze out more cash flow and profit. However, looking at the table below, it seems clear that profits are not keeping up with the rising dividend, as cover from earnings is declining. Sooner or later, something must give if the top line continues to deteriorate, such as the dividend either halting its progression or even being trimmed in size to adjust to the firm’s shrinking business.

Year to September 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013
Adjusted earnings per share 161.8p 178.8p 188p 201p 210.7p
Dividend per share 73p 84.3p 95.1p 105.6p 116.4p
Divided cover from earnings 2.2 2.1 1.98 1.9 1.8

In the meantime, the firm is doing all it can to bump up returns by buying back its own shares, which induces a nicotine-like rush in earnings- and dividend-per-share figures, but hopping on this smoking-seats-only train feels like a race to collide with the buffers at the metaphorical end-of-the-line.

What now?

Imperial Tobacco’s 5.3% forward dividend yield doesn’t appear as attractive to me as the income available from some other companies. 

Should you invest, the value of your investment may rise or fall and your capital is at risk. Before investing, your individual circumstances should be assessed. Consider taking independent financial advice.

Kevin does not hold shares in Imperial Tobacco Group.

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