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Better Buy: Altria Group vs. Verizon

Altria Group (NYSE: MO) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) have long been bastions of bountiful dividend income for investors. With the tobacco titan and wireless king currently yielding 4.1% and 4.9%, respectively, that certainly remains the case today.

But which of these dividend dynamos is the better buy? Let's find out.

Image source: Getty Images.

Moat  

Altria's economic moat is built upon its vast distribution system, scale advantages, and strong brand loyalty among smokers. In addition, regulations designed to deter smoking also serve to restrict the type of advertising tobacco companies can use, making it extremely difficult for upstarts to wrestle away market share from Altria. Perhaps most importantly, the addictive nature of tobacco products gives Altria strong pricing power: It's consistently able to raise prices to offset declining cigarette volumes.

Like Altria, Verizon benefits from scale advantages, as its massive wireless customer base allows it to better leverage its costs than its smaller rivals. But unlike Altria, Verizon is besieged by an onslaught of competition, most notably by T-Mobile, which is relentless in its quest to upend the status quo within the wireless industry with a never-ending barrage of innovative promotions.

Thus, I'd argue that Altria has the wider moat between these two dividend giants.

Advantage: Altria

Financial fortitude 

Let's now take a look at some key metrics to see how Altria and Verizon stack up in regards to financial strength.

Metric

Altria

Verizon

Revenue

$19.5 billion

$124.4 billion

Operating income

$9.4 billion

$30.6 billion

Operating cash flow

$4.4 billion

$22.2 billion

Free cash flow

$4.2 billion

$4.7 billion

Cash

$2.6 billion

$4.5 billion

Debt

$13.9 billion

$117.5 billion

DATA SOURCE: MORNINGSTAR.

Verizon's revenue dwarfs that of Altria. Its operating income and cash flow are also significantly greater. But due to the heavy capital expenditures needed to maintain and upgrade its wireless network, Verizon's free cash flow over the past 12 months -- at $4.7 billion -- is only slightly higher than Altria's $4.2 billion.

Moreover, Verizon's massive $117 billion debt load could further dampen its free cash flow generation if interest rates rise in the coming years.

For these reasons, I give the edge to Altria when it comes to financial fortitude.

Advantage: Altria

Growth

Over the past half-decade, Altria's revenue growth has outpaced Verizon's. That's surprising, because this occurred during a time when smoking rates have declined in the U.S., while smartphone and data usage has risen sharply.

MO Revenue (TTM) data by YCharts.

Over the next five years, Wall Street expects Altria to grow its earnings per share at an annualized rate of more than 8% compared to less than 2% for Verizon. So in terms of both recent past and expected future growth, Altria comes out ahead. 

Advantage: Altria

Valuation 

No better-buy discussion should take place without a look at valuation. Let's check out some key value metrics for Altria and Verizon, including price-to-earnings (P/E) and price-to-free-cash-flow ratios.

Metric

Altria

Verizon

Trailing P/E

8.03

12.26

Forward P/E

18.08

12.36

P/FCF

29.08

41.76

DATA SOURCE: MORNINGSTAR.

Altria's low trailing P/E is largely due to a $13.9 billion one-time gain related to Anheuser-Busch InBev's merger with SABMiller in late 2016. On a forward basis, Altria's price-to-earnings is actually about 50% more than Verizon's.

Yet it's free cash flow that ultimately allows companies to reward their shareholders with dividends, so it stands to reason that income-focused investors should pay particular attention to the P/FCF ratio when evaluating dividend stocks. And on this important metric, Altria is currently the better deal.

Advantage: Altria

The better buy is...

It's a clean sweep for Altria Group, with the tobacco colossus having an edge over Verizon in every area that we studied. With a wider economic moat, stronger financial position, superior growth prospects, and a more attractively priced stock, Altria is clearly the better buy today.

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Joe Tenebruso has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Anheuser-Busch InBev NV and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool recommends T-Mobile US. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.