A tobacco industry in turmoil

“For decades, it seems nothing has been able to hold back the tobacco industry,” says Tara Lachapelle on Bloomberg Gadfly. “That was until Friday,” when more than $50bn of market value in three American tobacco companies briefly went up in smoke following news that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is seeking to lower nicotine in cigarettes to non-addictive levels. The shares of Altria Group, maker of Marlboro, fell 9.5%, while British American Tobacco’s fell 6.8%. For both companies, it was the biggest one-day drop since 2008. Philip Morris International shares also dipped, but later recovered.

However, the measures “may never be enacted due to effective lobbying or legal challenges”, says Spencer Jakab in The Wall Street Journal. Even if they are, they take time, during which tobacco firms will continue to rake in profits. Also, as analysts at Wells Fargo point out, this could be “an opportunity for reduced-risk products”, such as vapour inhalers.

The number of smokers in the US is falling, but industry revenues have risen thanks to higher prices, says the FT’s Lex column. Last year, volume sales fell 2% while their value rose 1% to $94.4bn. After last week’s losses, Altria and Philip Morris still had forward price-earnings ratios of more than 20. “It’s worth questioning whether tobacco stocks still deserve their premium valuations for such slow, if not uncertain, growth,”
says Lachapelle.

City talk

 “Sky’s outside shareholders won’t care how much its chief executive Jeremy Darroch and finance director Andrew Griffith earn, as long as they get their hands on Rupert Murdoch’s takeover cash eventually,” says Nils Pratley in The Guardian. However, “there’s something odd about the latest share-based windfalls for the top duo”. Darroch will collect £11.5m and Griffith £6.75m after an incentive scheme allocated a maximum payout based on Sky’s operational performance to the three years to the end of June. “This seems surprising. In terms of hard financials, 2014-2017 will not be remembered as a vintage period for Sky.” As earnings per share fell in two out of the three years, “isn’t Sky supposed to believe in better”?

The unanswered question at Barclays is whether CEO Jes Staley will be allowed by regulators to carry on with his reforms, says Alex Brummer in the Daily Mail. “No one questions Staley’s credentials or direction of travel, but his poor handling of a whistleblower left a lot to be desired.” He broke whistleblowing rules in an effort to defend a friend, which prompted the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and the Bank of England’s Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) to launch investigations. At times it seems, ten years after the financial crisis, like UK high-street banks “are continuously swimming through mud”. 

BT and its chief executive Gavin Patterson said in October that “its little difficulty in Italy” would cost it £145m, says Patrick Hosking in The Times. Then in January it was £530m. Now the official bill for the fraud has reached £755m, as the telecoms giant forks out another £225m to settle a legal dispute with the key investors Deutsche Telekom and Orange. “With class-action warriors massing in America, could we soon be talking, er, telephone numbers?”