We often ask investors if companies can pay out dividends with earnings. Almost all of them say yes. But in reality, earnings are but an accounting measure. Dividends are paid in cash, and cash-flow analysis is the absolute core of dividend investing. That is why we created a forward-looking assessment of dividend safety in our innovative, predictive dividend-cut indicator, the Valuentum Dividend Cushion™, which represents cash-flow based analysis. In this article, let's evaluate the investment merits of General Electric (GE), as well as its dividend under this unique but yet very straightforward framework.
Return on Invested Capital
General Electric's Dividend
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General Electrics's dividend yield is solid, offering roughly a 3.6% annual payout at recent price levels. We prefer yields above 3% and don't include firms with yields below 2% in our dividend growth portfolio.
We think the safety of General Electric's dividend is good (please see our definitions at the bottom of this article). We measure the safety of the dividend in a unique but very straightforward fashion. As many know, earnings can fluctuate in any given year, so using the payout ratio in any given year has some limitations. Plus, companies can often encounter unforeseen charges (read: hiccups in operations), which makes earnings an even less-than-predictable measure of the safety of the dividend in any given year. We know that companies won't cut the dividend just because earnings have declined or they had a restructuring charge that put them in the red for the quarter (year). As such, we think that assessing the cash flows of a business allows us to determine whether it has the capacity to continue paying these cash outlays well into the future.
That has led us to develop the forward-looking Valuentum Dividend Cushion™. The measure is a ratio that sums the existing cash a company has on hand plus its expected future free cash flows over the next five years and divides that sum by future expected dividends over the same time period. Basically, if the score is above 1, the company has the capacity to pay out its expected future dividends. As income investors, however, we'd like to see a score much larger than 1 for a couple reasons: 1) the higher the ratio, the more "cushion" the company has against unexpected earnings shortfalls, and 2) the higher the ratio, the greater capacity a dividend-payer has in boosting the dividend in the future. Financial advisors love this tool.
For General Electric, this score is 1.6, revealing that on its current path the firm can cover its future dividends with net cash on hand and future free cash flow. We also use our dividend cushion as a key decision component in choosing companies for addition to the portfolio of our Dividend Growth Newsletter.
Now on to the potential growth of General Electric's dividend. As we mentioned above, we think the larger the "cushion" the larger capacity it has to raise the dividend. However, such dividend growth analysis is not complete until after considering management's willingness to increase the dividend. We evaluate the company's historical dividend track record. If there have been no dividend cuts in 10 years, the company has a nice growth rate, and a nice dividend cushion, its future potential dividend growth would be excellent, which is not the case for General Electric. We'd rate the firm's future potential dividend growth as good. We remember the day GE cut its dividend as if it were yesterday, but that's the only reason why we don't rate the dividend's potential growth as excellent.
And because capital preservation is also an important consideration, we assess the risk associated with the potential for capital loss (offering investors a complete picture). In General Electric's case, we currently think the shares are undervalued, so the risk of capital loss is low. If we thought the shares were fairly valued, then the risk of capital loss would be medium.
All things considered, we think General Electric is a slam-dunk dividend play. The firm is undervalued, its yield is attractive, and the dividend has strong growth prospects, in our opinion.