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Saturday, February 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Motley Fool: A smoking dividend

People try out a pen-like “heat-not-burn” device at an IQOS store at Ginza in Tokyo on Oct. 22, 2018. Philip Morris International’s IQOS heated-tobacco device has seen its total user count increase. (Associated Press)
People try out a pen-like “heat-not-burn” device at an IQOS store at Ginza in Tokyo on Oct. 22, 2018. Philip Morris International’s IQOS heated-tobacco device has seen its total user count increase. (Associated Press)

Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM), the world’s second-largest publicly traded tobacco company, was spun off from Altria in 2008. While Altria kept the shrinking domestic market, Philip Morris focused on higher-growth foreign markets.

Selling tobacco products in more than 180 countries, Philip Morris can count its geographic breadth as an asset. Weakness in developed markets is offset by market advantages in developing countries, many of which have a burgeoning middle class seeking affordable luxuries, such as tobacco.

Philip Morris has been able to grow its sales through price increases, even as cigarette shipping volumes have fallen.

The company is looking beyond traditional tobacco offerings, and its IQOS heated-tobacco device has seen its total user count increase from an estimated 7.6 million in the first quarter of 2018 to 12.4 million in the third quarter of 2019. This has fueled a 45.7% year-over-year increase in heated-tobacco unit shipping volumes through the first nine months of 2019.

At a time when investors worry about a possible recession, Philip Morris is well-positioned for a downturn: Its chief product is addictive, so people will keep buying it regardless of the economy. It also offers investors a hefty dividend – which recently yielded 5.6%. If you’re OK investing in tobacco, give the stock a closer look.

Ask the Fool

Q: What are America’s biggest employers? – P.K., West Haven, Connecticut

A: The U.S. federal government employs the most people in America. As of 2018, it employed more than 585,000 civilians in the U.S. Postal Service and more than 2 million more people in all other agencies, per the president’s budget for fiscal year 2020. The military, meanwhile, employed about 1.4 million people in uniform, for a grand governmental total of more than 4.1 million.

Among private employers, Walmart leads the pack by far, employing about 2.2 million people globally, per Fortune 500 data. It’s followed in the Fortune 500 by (647,500 total employees), Kroger (453,000), Yum China Holdings (450,000), Home Depot (413,000) and Berkshire Hathaway (389,000).

Q: What’s stock dilution? – M.S., Aspen, Colorado

A: If a company already has a certain number of shares outstanding and it issues more shares, that can dilute – or decrease – the value of existing shares. The more shares that exist, the smaller the ownership stake each of them will have.

Here’s a simplified example: Imagine that a company has three shares, and you own one. If it issues a fourth share, your stake in the company will go from a third to a quarter.

Issuing additional shares can make sense if it helps the company raise money to fuel its growth and increase earnings (perhaps by buying another company with its stock). But if the shares are issued to finance a merger that doesn’t work out well, or to reward management or employees beyond what they’ve earned or what’s reasonable, then value is being destroyed.

My dumbest investment

My dumbest investment was in a timeshare back in the 1980s. I didn’t have all the info I needed, and in the end, I lost my money. – Stephen, online

The Fool responds: The timeshare concept is an appealing one – buying the right to share a vacation property (or to participate in a network of them) for much less than the cost of buying a vacation home outright.

Timeshares have caused major headaches for many of their owners, though – so many that the Federal Trade Commission and other government offices have offered guidance and warnings about them. Many owners have had trouble selling their timeshares; some were scammed by companies charging them upfront while promising that their shares would get sold.

Anyone thinking of buying a timeshare should engage in due diligence first. Look into whether the timeshare company has had any complaints lodged against it, and read all the fine print in the contract you’re offered – perhaps with a savvy friend or lawyer reading it, as well. Be sure you understand the fees you’ll be charged and what all the rules and restrictions are. (For example, timeshares generally feature annual fees, which can be hefty.)

Know that timeshares often don’t increase in value over time – and many end up resold at a great discount. You might spend less simply renting homes for vacations each year.

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