Wednesday, March 25, 2009

* Early Warning Signs of a Dividend Cut

It seems each week another dividend Aristocrat, Achiever or Champion cuts its dividend after increasing it for 10 or more years. In most cases the companies' investors were not surprised because they saw the early warning signs that indicated a dividend cut was imminent. Here are three signs that a company is heading toward a dividend cut:

I. Change In Business Conditions

An abrupt or permanent shift in a company's business model as a result of business conditions could lead to a dividend cut. Over the last 18 months or so, virtually all businesses have experienced an adverse change in business conditions. However, the pertinent question is to what degree?

Consider Gannett Co. (GCI) who publishes 90 daily U.S. newspapers, nearly 1,000 non-daily publications in the U.S., and close to 300 U.K. titles. With the mass adoption of the internet, traditional news outlets such as newspapers are experiencing a slow death. GCI cut its dividend earlier this year after several years of declining earnings.

Pfizer's (PFE) recent dividend cut would fall in this category. After years of unsuccessful attempts to get approval of a "blockbuster" drug, the cash rich company sought a merger partner with a good drug pipeline. In anticipation of it proposed combination with Wyeth, PFE cut its dividend.

II. Dividend Yield Above Historic and Industry Norms

A dividend yield that is higher than average and/or higher than others in the industry are indications, not all is well with the company. The market is adjusting to compensate for the higher risk of holding the company. When dividend yields start creeping up, it is time to start evaluating if the company can continue to pay its dividend.

Consider Bank of America Corp. (BAC). Between 2000 and 2007 the company's dividend yield hovered in the 3%-4% range. In 2008, the dividend yield ranged from around 5% to the teens prior to its dividend cut. The same situation occurred with General Electric (GE) over the same period. GE's dividend yield from 2000-2007 normally were in the range of 1.5%-3.5%. However, in 2008 they the dividend yield than doubled as investors lost confidence in the company. Eventually, BAC and GE cut their dividends.

III. Diminishing Cash Available to Pay Dividends

Ultimately, the ability of a company to pay its dividend is determined by its cash position - both cash on its balance sheet and its ability to generate cash flow. All the companies above had one thing in common - a deterioration of cash flow available for paying dividends.

After GCI's free cash flow peaked in 2004 at $1.3 billion, it slipped over the next four years to $852 million in 2008. Though GE's free cash flow was increasing, the company was taking on significant debt. GE's debt increased from $201 billion in 2000 to $524 billion in 2008 and it could no longer afford its dividend.

A Look Ahead

Unfortunately, there will be more dividend cuts in the coming days. Two companies currently on my radar are Nucor Corp. (NUE) and Caterpillar Inc. (CAT).

On March 17th, NUE warned of a first quarter loss as the slumping economy sapped demand for the metal forcing it to cut output. "The economy has fallen off a cliff -- and there is no visibility as to the timing of the recovery," Nucor Chairman, Chief Executive and President Dan DiMicco said in a statement. NUE's free cash flows through 2008 had been strong and it ended 2008 with $920 million net debt (debt less cash) vs. $879 million in 2007. NUE is ok for now, but I look forward to reading their Q1 earnings release.

Last week CAT announced that its global machinery sales fell 27 percent in February, the third straight month of declines as the economic downturn has eroded demand for heavy equipment. In a separate announcement the company said it had notified an additional 2,454 workers in three states that they were losing their jobs as the company continues to try to bring production in line with plummeting demand. CAT's financial position is not as strong as NUE. Its free cash flow in 2008 was less than half of 2007 and it ended 2008 with no cash and $33 billion in debt vs. $27 billion net debt in 2007. This is another quarterly earnings release that I look forward to reading.

The above three items will help you determine which companies are at risk of cutting their dividends. Cash is king, so pay special attention to free cash flows and debt levels.

Full Disclosure: Long CAT and NUE.
(Photo Credit)

Tags: [BAC] [CAT] [GCI] [GE] [NUE] [PFE]