Merrill Lynch lowered its investment rating on shares of Philip Morris (MO ) and Loews Carolina Group (CG ), the tracking stock for Loews Corp.'s Lorillard subsidiary, to neutral from buy.
Analyst Martin Feldman says he is concerned over the tobacco industry's ability to win individual plaintiff litigation against it, predominantly on the West Coast. He notes that the downgrade is unrelated to last week's $28 billion punitive damage award in the Bullock claim against Philip Morris. Feldman has commented that he expects the award to be reduced to around $100 million. He says two more individual claims are likely to reach jury verdicts in California, probably in November, with a third claim in that state likely to reach a jury verdict during the first quarter of 2003. While the tobacco industry could win any of these three claims, Feldman does not currently see any data points to suggest that this is likely.