Jan 30, 2020

Altria's Juul investment goes up in smoke

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Altria's decision to pay $12.8 billion last year for a 35% equity stake in vaping giant Juul is turning into one of the worst strategic investments in memory.

Driving the news: Altria on Thursday took a $4.1 billion impairment charge on its Juul investment, mostly blaming the "increased number of legal cases pending against Juul," which it says have increased more than 80% since last November 2019.

  • Add in an an earlier impairment charge, and Altria now values its Juul stake at $4.2 billion — representing a loss of 67%, or $8.6 billion, in just 14 months.

The big picture: Altria and Juul also amended certain non-financial parts of their agreement, including giving Altria an option to exit a non-compete agreement if Juul either gets banned from selling e-vaping products in the U.S. for a year, or if Altria writes down the carrying value of its investment to 10% of the original $12.8 billion price.

  • And, just for one last kick in the teeth, the CEO of Philip Morris said on CNBC that the idea of a reconsolidation with Altria "is finished."

Between the lines: If there's any silver lining here for Juul, it's that Altria did also maintain its commitment "to work together" on pre-market tobacco product applications (PMTAs), and to continue giving it regulatory affairs support.

What they're saying:

"As we continue to reset the vapor category, we are committed to advancing the long-term potential for harm reduction for adult smokers while combatting underage use. We are focused on building a company for the long-term by preparing high-quality, scientifically rigorous Premarket Tobacco Product Applications to earn authorization in the U.S. while we take a methodical approach to our overseas presence."
— Statement from Juul CEO K.C. Crosthwaite

The bottom line: Altria thought its deal for Juul would lift all nicotine-stained boats, kicking off an industry consolidation that would protect all players from changing consumer and retailer tastes. Instead, it might have just blown a $12.8 billion hole in the hull.

Go deeper: FDA issues ban on fruit and mint-flavored vape cartridges

Go deeper

Inside hackers' pivot to medical espionage

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A wave of cyber-spying around COVID-19 medical research is once more demonstrating the perils of treating cybersecurity as a separate, walled-off realm.

Driving the news: U.S. officials recently announced an uptick in Chinese-government affiliated hackers targeting medical research and other facilities in the United States for data on a potential COVID-19 cure or effective treatments to combat the virus. Additionally, “more than a dozen countries have redeployed military and intelligence hackers to glean whatever they can about other nations’ virus responses,” reports the New York Times.

The downsides of remote work

Data: Reproduced from Prudential/Morning Consult "Pulse of the American Worker Survey"; Chart: Axios Visuals

The coronavirus pandemic has forced a large-scale experiment in working from home. It has gone well enough that many companies are expanding their remote work expectations for the foreseeable future, and remote employees want to continue to work that way.

Yes, but: The downsides of remote work — less casual interaction with colleagues, an over-reliance on Zoom, lack of in-person collaboration and longer hours — could over time diminish the short-term gains.

Hong Kong's economic future hangs in the balance

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As Beijing forces a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, the once semi-autonomous city's status as one of Asia's largest financial hubs is at risk.

Why it matters: Political freedoms and strong rule of law helped make Hong Kong a thriving center for international banking and finance. But China's leaders may be betting that top firms in Hong Kong will trade some political freedoms for the economic prosperity Beijing can offer.