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Philip Morris: Reading The Smoke Signals In 2015 - Part 1

Roughly one year after my series on international tobacco, I have decided to write an update.

I will focus primarily on the performance of Philip Morris versus its three largest international competitors.

In the first part of the 2015 series, I will study the competitive dynamics in Western Europe.

Due to popular demand, I have decided to write another installment of my 2014-published series on international tobacco called 'Reading the Smoke Signals'. As customary, I will focus mostly on the international arena (excluding the U.S. and China), because this is the primary battleground for Philip Morris (NYSE:PM) and its largest competitors: British American Tobacco (NYSEMKT:BTI), Japan Tobacco (OTCPK:JAPAY) and Imperial Tobacco (OTCQX:ITYBY). This article will focus on the relative performances delivered by these four companies in some of the different geographic areas in which they compete. I will also look at some of the important structural developments, including the increased pace of consolidation seen year to date. Since Philip Morris is the international market share leader, this company in particular is the focus of the article. In this first installment, I will take a look at the competitive landscape in Western Europe.

Philip Morris in Western Europe

Western Europe is a mature cigarette market with high average prices as a result of high excise tax levels. It also has an increasingly strict regulatory environment with more regulation in sight, as the new EU tobacco products directive is mandated for adoption by EU member states in the spring of 2016 at the latest. Profitability in this region is above average as a result of high average income levels and high average tobacco prices at retail. Philip Morris is the undisputed share leader in the region, due in important part to Marlboro's long-time leadership and continued resilience. The new Marlboro 2.0 architecture appears to have benefited the brand's consumer perception and its market share has continuously showed improvements over the past 4 years or so. Marlboro market share in the region was up to 19.3% for 2014 and has increased further to 19.4% as of September 2015. That is an important indication of PM's ability to keep the brand relevant despite its reliance in part on an aging demographic.

The pace of volume declines in the EU market overall accelerated during the economic crisis in 2008. Next to economic reasons like pressure on personal incomes and high unemployment rates, other important factors contributing to this pressure have been increasing tax rates, an increased prevalence of illicit trade, e-cigarette consumption and increasing regulation because of health concerns. In 2014, however, the industry saw significant moderation in volume declines as a result of the decreased popularity of e-cigarettes, a decrease in illicit trade and some economic improvements as well.

Market share for Philip Morris in the region was up to 39.8% for 2014 and to 39.9% as of September 2015. Next to Marlboro, PM relies on brands like L&M (up 0.1pp to 7.1% share) and Chesterfield (up 0.3pp to 5.8% share) as its most important volume drivers. In markets like Italy and the Czech Republic, it also has ownership of local brands like Diana and Red & White, respectively, that have generally witnessed declines as consumers gradually move to international brands. Philip Morris's performance has been strong in recent years, as it continues to gain share in many of the region's most important markets. Its market shares were up during 2014 in all of the following markets: France (up 0.8pp to 41%), Germany (up 0.4pp to 36.6%), Italy (up 1.8pp to 54.9%), Poland (up 1.9pp to 40.1%) and Spain (up 0.9pp to 32.1%). Marlboro's performance was strong primarily in France and Spain, while L&M drove performance in Poland and Germany. Improvements in Italy were driven by share gains delivered by Chesterfield, which continued to derive benefits from its price repositioning in this market. Market share improvements were reflected in PM's overall volume improvement of +0.1% during 2014, while the total cigarette market was lower by -3.1%.

The trends seen during 2014 have largely continued during the recently reported 9M period of 2015, with further share improvements seen in France, Germany and...