Ensuring Dividend Survivability

The continuance of a dividend is never assured, but there are a number of things the investor can examine that will offer confidence of the dividend’s survivability, or act as a red flag. We examine these metrics, look at some example companies, and link to sources where this information can be found for any company.

My wife saw an advertisement on television for a peeler.  It showed someone peeling apples, pears, carrots, and on and on.  As this had been one of her frustrations in the kitchen she ordered it, saying that it would change her life.

When it arrived, to be gentle, it did not exactly work as well as advertised.  I tried using it myself with as little success as she had had.  Today it is in the basement, in a box of things we would like to give away, but wouldn’t want to burden anyone with.

Purchasing on a promise is that we do.  We buy things because they promise to help us in some way.  Sometimes they do, sometimes they do not.  When we purchase something with the hope that it will help us and it does not, we know that if we had had that knowledge beforehand we would not have made the purchase in the first place.

Dividend stocks are in the same category.  When researching a company we look at the expectation of future growth, we look at the expectation of stability, and we look at the expectation of the dividend.  As we look at financial statements there are indicators with each of these aspects, and as the first two are outside of the scope of this writing, I will focus on the dividend.

This is essential because if there are red flags implying a possible cut or removal of the dividend, then the only path forward is to value the company without this key aspect.  As dividend stocks rely on this quarterly payout to attract and hold investors, valuation without the expected dividend will almost certainly mark the company as a sale.

There are a number of metrics that we can examine that will give us an indication as to what we should be looking for.  We will also look at a few companies to see how they are evaluated through these metrics.

Dividend Payout Ratio

The Dividend Payout Ratio is the most commonly used metric.  It is expressed as a percentage, and is found by dividing the annualized dividend per share by the earnings per share.  This shows the percentage of the company’s earnings that are shared with the investor through dividends.  (The opposite of this would be the retention ratio, which is the percentage of earnings that are not given to shareholders, but are retained by the company.)

The two obvious endpoints come with payout ratios less than 0% and higher than 100%.  The former can happen if estimates of earnings per share for the next year are negative, meaning that the company is losing money.  If the company is losing money then it has no business going further into debt by offering a dividend.

When payout ratios exceed 100% the company is making money, but more dividends than earnings are going to the shareholders.  This is not a sustainable event.  It is possible that a company with a long history of dividends may not want to cut or suspend the payments, and if a one-time event (lawsuit, catastrophic event, etc.) is the source of payout ratio then they may allow this to happen, but it is not a positive trend.

Payout ratios over 50% are considered to be high.  From the investor’s point of view a ratio this large might be a positive event.  But for the long term investor it means that the retained earnings may not be enough for the company to sufficiently invest in future growth, which could then stunt the ability of the company to increase dividends in the future.

A payout ratio over 75% trends toward the more severe end.  A lack of future growth not only puts dividend increases in the future into jeopardy, but the company’s stock can drop as a result, subjecting the investor to the worst of both worlds.

The Dividend Payout Ratio is easy to find.  NASDAQ.com offers the information on their website – here are links to three companies in my dividend portfolio where I have owned DRiPs an average of 20 years, MMMAflac and Johnson & Johnson.  As can be seen from these three companies, the payout ratio is in the area of comfort.

Dividend Payout Ratio

MMM21.6%
Aflac12.9%
Johnson & Johnson22.3%

Cash Dividend Payout Ratio

The Cash Dividend Payout Ratio is similar to the Dividend Payout Ratio, but provides a better analysis of the sustainability of the company’s dividend.  Instead of comparing dividends to earnings, the dividends are compared to cash flow, so the formula looks like this:

Cash Dividend Payout = dividends / (cash flow – capital expenditures – preferred dividends)

Preferred dividends are given to shareholders of preferred stock, which basically means that they have priority over holders of common stock.  If a company is unable to pay all of their dividends then those with preferred shares are first in line to get theirs.

At first glance this may seem to be a number that would pretty much be the same as the Dividend Payout Ratio, and in a perfect world that would be the case.  The difference is that earnings can be manipulated considerably easier than cash flow.

Earnings manipulation is not necessarily intentional fraud, but can be performed through legal accounting tricks that make the company appear to be more profitable than would otherwise be the case.  Obviously, the more earnings a company shows, the more positively it is viewed.  Examples of this manipulation could be capitalization practices, modifying the timing of operating activities, and merger-related expenses.

Cash flow is the movement of money in and out of the business.  While it is possible to manipulate cash flow, it is much more difficult, so using cash flow instead of earnings in the equation can offer a more reliable number.

SeekingAlpha.com offers this information for MMMAflac and Johnson & Johnson and again looking at the companies listed above we can record their numbers. 

Cash Dividend Payout Ratio

MMM61.8%
Aflac13.8%
Johnson & Johnson49.9%

For these three excellent companies we see a wide range with the cash dividend payout ratios.  I generally look to the guidance noted above as far as what might be considered to be high and low. 

MMM’s Cash Dividend Payout Ratio appears to be on the high side, but no number should be seen in isolation.  Information of this sort should not be used by itself to make a decision but should be seen in conjunction with additional information to determine its relevance.  In this case MMM’s number is something to note and keep in mind while investigating other information.

MMM has increased their dividend every year since 1959, weathering seven recessions, so it would be extraordinary if they were to decide to end this streak.  As this is a company that has historically placed importance on maintaining their dividend, the expectation is that they will continue to do so.  We need to make sure that they actually will be able to do this.

Financial Debt Ratios

Financial debt is simply money owed by the company that is to be paid back at a future date.  This could include short term debt (due within one year), long term debt, deferred revenues, pension liabilities, and many other items. 

Debt is not necessarily a bad thing, after all one might go into debt to purchase a car, which in turn could make it possible for the individual to travel further for a higher paying job.  The same is true with companies – properly structured debt can be used to the company’s advantage (for instance, paying 4% interest on something that offers 6% in return).

Certainly, too much debt can cause major problems.  The required outflows of money limit the amount that can be used for investing back into the company, as well as dividends.  Understanding the ratio of debt to certain other issues gives us an insight as to how the debt is affecting the company.

Debt to EBITDA

EBITA stands for Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, and Amortization.  While EBITA is not recognized in the generally accepted accounting principles, it is a commonly used number that generally references the company’s operating profitability.  Comparing the debt to profitability gives us an indication as to how much the debt is dragging on a company’s earnings.

Gurufocus.com notes that according to Joel Tillinghast (Big Money Thinks Small: Biases, Blind Spots, and Smarter Investing) a ratio of Debt-to-EBITDA above 4 is a concern unless tangible assets cover the debt.  A ratio under 1 would be considered to be very positive.

Thanks to this Gurufocus, the Debt to EBITA ratio is conveniently located for MMMAflac and Johnson & Johnson.

Debt to EBITDA Ratio

MMM2.49
Aflac1.44
Johnson & Johnson1.24

While MMM has the highest in this small group, the Gurufocus’s MMM page also indicates that while MMM’s debt to EBITA ratio is at a 10 year high, this number is ranked lower than 55% of the 1,843 companies in the Industrial Products category, so that should be taken into consideration.

Interestingly, Aflac and Johnson & Johnson both rank higher than 51% and 59% of the companies in the Insurance and Drug Manufacturers industries.

Debt to Assets

A comparison of debt to assets offers an indication as to how much the company’s assets are leveraged after accounting for their securities.  A ratio of 0.5 or larger might be a cause for concern, but the industry in which the company fits under has much to do with this number.  After all, a company that makes products to sell (like MMM) would have many assets, whereas an insurance company (like Aflac) would have considerably fewer.

While I do not consider this ratio to be as significant in terms of a dividend’s stability as the above numbers, it is valuable in that offers an insight to the degree which the company is using debt to finance its assets.  In other words, a number of 0.3 means that 30% of its assets are financed through debt while 70% is owned by the shareholders.

Again, Gurufocus offers this information for MMMAflac and Johnson & Johnson.

Debt to Asset Ratio

MMM0.48
Aflac0.04
Johnson & Johnson0.19

Not only is MMM’s number high, but it is also high when compared to other companies in the same space.  As stated above, these numbers should not be viewed by themselves, but in coordination with other numbers.  When looked at together the company’s high Cash Dividend Payout, Debt to EBITDA, and Debt to Asset ratios together must make one take notice of their situation.

Delving further into the numbers, we see that MMM is currently saddled with $14 billion in debt, which even for a company of its size is substantial.  Chances are that this company’s dividend is safe, but the data points noted should make holders of the stock pay closer attention to the quarterly reports.  In this case I would suggest that MMM is neither a green flag nor a red flag, but more a yellow one, or caution.  I have confidence that they will do what they can to continue to increase the dividend well into the future, but need to continue to monitor the situation to make sure that events do not overcome the company’s desires.

Evaluating companies to ensure that their dividend is secure is important and necessary for owners of dividend stocks and those thinking about a purchase.  The company’s dividend is an essential part of the reason for owning the stock, and making sure that the dividend is retained will bring stability to one’s portfolio.

Perhaps It’s Not Time to Invest

Most people start investing without having the proper foundation in place.  There are five tasks that should be accomplished before getting involved with investing.

Perhaps by the title you were thinking that I might be cautioning against investing at this particular time.  For some that is exactly what I am saying, but it has nothing to do with market prognostication.  After all, with proper dividend investing, timing is of little significance, but that is fodder for a different article.

I occasionally participate in the Quora forums, where people ask and answer questions.  Within the dividend realm there are numerous questions that can only make one shake their head in despair.  For instance:

  • How can I make 8 million dollars?
  • Is there a proven way that you have used to get rich using other people’s money?
  • I am desperate to get rich, what can I do?
  • What is the best way to make a million dollars?

And the amusing:

  • Is there a way to get rich without risking jail time?

When I think back to a time when I was much younger I can imagine myself asking these very questions.  With the current success of the stock market (this is written in January 2020, so keep that in mind) it is natural to think that just throwing money in that direction will result in financial success.

Stepping back a couple of decades this could have been the situation.  The craziness of that time could be represented by TheGlobe.com, a social networking site.  It went public in 1998 and the shares jumped over 600% on its first day of trading. 

Perhaps we know what happened from there – the price fell to ten cents, the company went out of business, and today their website cannot be reached, thus the reason why the link to it above goes to Wikipedia.  Many people made money during that time, and many people lost money. 

The investing mindset is a key component to prudent investing.  Throwing one’s money into the air with the expectation of success is something that simply does not work.  Building a proper foundation before one begins to invest not only sets a proper framework from which to build success, but also establishes the proper mindset that keeps one from delving into penny stocks and get rich quick schemes.

There are five tasks that should be performed before beginning to consider the selection of companies for their portfolio.  While these items may take quite a bit of time to perform, they will act as preparation for the investment of one’s hard earned money.

1. Get rid of all credit card debt

There is good debt and there is bad debt.  Good debt goes toward a specific objective that one can use to better their life.  Education can put one into debt, but the degree that the education offers will allow one to get a better job.  A car may put one in debt but it is probably necessary to get one to work.  A house will almost certainly place one in debt, but the structure becomes equity.  

Bad debt results from not being able to afford what has been purchased.  I use my credit card on a regular basis because I get cash back, but pay the card in full when the bill is due.  If I could not do this then that would indicate that I am spending too much (or not earning enough).  Not being able to pay off a credit card is financially unsound and acts as a negative investment.

2. Max out any matching funds that your employer offers

Even better than sliced bread is the opportunity to invest in an employer’s 401(k) or equivalent.  The money is taken from the paycheck before taxes so one’s overall taxes are lessened.  These funds are eventually taxed at a time when the tax rate is almost certainly lower.

If the employer offers a match of any money invested then that percentage should be maxed out.  Some employers offer up to 7.5% matching of funds.  Whatever the employer is willing to offer, that is what is referred to as “free money” and actually an untaxed (at the moment) increase in salary.

3. Open a savings account and add to it until you have three months of money

I seldom suggest placing money into a savings account but this is an exception.  The interest rates on savings accounts are such that one actually loses money over time due to inflation.  A savings account, however, has the guarantee of retaining the amount entered.  The same could be said of a money market account or CD (although one needs to make sure that they will not need the money before the CD matures, a mistake I made long ago).  Any instrument that insures the amount will suffice.

The reason for doing this is insurance against the peril of losing one’s job.  In my working life I was laid off more times than my wife had jobs – just the hazards of being a programmer – which is perhaps why I see this as imperative.  The last thing you want is to have to pull your money from working investments at a time not of your choosing.  This reserve will give you three months of confidence that the rent will get paid, you will have food to eat, and will enjoy heat in the apartment or house.

4. Open a Roth IRA

This also falls into the category of “free money.”  A Roth IRA allows one to invest for retirement, and when the time comes there are no taxes on the capital gains.  I wish that this had been available when I was younger, but when it was offered I maxed it out.

One can place up to $6,000 a year ($7,000 a year if 50 or older) into the Roth IRA.  For example, if over 20 years one invests $120,000 into the Roth and the investment grows to $300,000, that $300,000 can be pulled out at the age of 59½ without having to pay taxes on the $170,000 in capital gains.  Like I said, free money.

The ability to withdraw the money tax-free is not only great in itself, but can also be used as a means of minimizing taxes when combined with extracting taxable monies from one’s account.  It is an all-around win.

5. Maintain a budget

It is easy to be surprised with things like car repairs, which (of course) always happen at the worst times.  It is much better to know that at some point one’s car will need to get repaired, so if money has already been set aside for this eventuality then the hit is not as severe.

For my budget I use a simple Excel spreadsheet and have categories like Electric, Car, For my budget I use a simple Excel spreadsheet and have categories like Electric, Car, Cable, etc., as well as things I am saving for (vacations, music festivals, etc.).  Each month I add money to each month’s row and remove what was spent that month in that row.  I know what is coming in and what is going out so that I don’t get in trouble.  If you want to use the spreadsheet I am using and modify it to your own needs then I have made available an example spreadsheet, but anything that works can be used (I started long ago just using graph paper).

At this point one can think about investing.

For some this may sound like a lot of unnecessary steps, especially when one sees a booming market and wants to jump in and make money.  But there are two things these steps do.

The first is that they establish a foundation of financial stability.  One has no debt, has taken advantage of the obvious and simple means of getting “free money,” has financial stability in case of the loss of money coming in, and understands their cash flow.  With the last item in this list one will know how much they can afford to invest and remain financially stable.

The other thing is that these steps provide the proper mindset for investing.  There are no questions about how to get rich quickly, no temptations to speculate on penny stocks, and no lack of understanding what it takes to be financially independent.  The hard work that it takes to perform all of these steps makes one even more cautious when it comes to investing their hard-earned money, and better prepare one to truly become a prudent investor.