The purchase of inhaled medicine business Vectura PLC (LON:VEC) by tobacco giant Philip Morris International Inc (NYSE:PM) has sparked speculation about what other acquisitions could be on the cards for deep-pocketed tobacco titans or others in similarly non-ESG industries.
Famous (or maybe infamous for some investors in these ESG days) for its Marlboro cigarette brand, tobacco giant PMI said it is snapping up the UK firm as part of grand plans to build a portfolio “beyond nicotine” and rather dubiously try and become a “broader healthcare and wellness company”.
The tobacco sector as a whole has for a few years been expanding away from known carcinogens into vaping and ecigarettes, where the medical evidence is still unclear but definitely less hostile.
PMI’s move into a distinct area of pharmaceuticals is not completely new in the industry, with FTSE 100 rival British American Tobacco PLC (LON:BAT) has a biotech subsidiary called Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), which came to the attention of many investors last year when the company said the unit was developing a potential vaccine for coronavirus.
BAT and US tobacco colossus Altria have taken stakes in Canadian cannabis companies Organigram (OGI) and Cronos, respectively, with the latter having been reported to be among the big-money lobbyists in Washington and at state level pushing for more cannabis-friendly laws.
Such moves are certainly being discussed at rivals such as Imperial Brands (LON:IMB), where they have so much cash they don’t know what to do with it, with increasing investments in so-called ‘reduced risk’ or ‘reduced harm’ products not always creating attractive returns.
Broker Jefferies suggested that political developments in the US (and maybe elsewhere) could soon allow the likes of BAT to gain greater exposure from cannabinoids, namely cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Retail sales of THC products in 2020 were US$17bn in the US, up 48% year on year, and are expected to reach over US$50bn in 2026, Jefferies said.
“For CBD, the US market could hit over US$16bn by 2025 on our estimates. Assuming OGI can gain a foothold in the US there could be sizeable upside,” Jefferies said.
Spreading the net wider, such as PMI has done with its move into respiratory medicines, could be another logical step.
“I like the idea of a tobacco firm buying AstraZeneca to do lung cancer treatment – a real end-to-end business that,” analyst Neil Wilson at Markets.com said with his tongue firmly in cheek.
Other sectors also seem ripe for such sideways or ‘diagonal’ moves.
“It amazes me banks have not snapped up these payments firms, Wise (LON:WISE) for example,” says Wilson. “Oil majors should just be buying up any clean energy business too.”
Big oil companies have already been making reasonably small moves, along with electricity and miners, looking to sell many of their oil fields, coal-fired power stations, coal mines and other un-ESG assets and then using the cash to invest in renewable energy or commodities with links to electrification, though for some this is still a fraction of size of their core business.
And this reinvention is not just to support share prices that may be coming under pressure as shareholders funnel money away from stocks that fail their environmental, social and governance (ESG) screens, says Russ Mould at AJ Bell.
He says BP (LON:BP.) and Shell’s (LON:RDSB) selling oil assets and recycling the cash into renewable energy assets, “sounds like a potential recipe for selling low, buying high and destroying shareholder value along the way”.
It won’t win them brownie points for all investors but may be seen as “the lesser evil”, Mould says, rather than being left with stranded, unwanted oil and gas fields.
Elsewhere, power companies such as SSE (LON:SSE) have already largely reshaped their business from coal-fired power stations to wind, solar, hydro and other renewable sources of energy.
Following PMI’s move it seems fair to say that its rivals could be inspired to make similar use of their large cash piles with M&A the flavour of the year, there could be many more intriguing acquisitions to come in coming months.