Although analyzing historical dividend trends is important, we think assessing what may happen to the dividend in the future is even more important. Unfortunately for the individual investor and time-strapped financial advisor, most dividend analysis that we've seen out there is backward-looking - meaning it rests on what the company has done in the past: how long it has raised its dividend, etc. That is why we created a forward-looking assessment of dividend safety through our innovative, predictive dividend-cut indicator, the Valuentum Dividend Cushion™. We use our future forecasts for free cash flow and expected dividends and consider the company's net cash position to make sure that each company is able to pay out such dividend obligations to you -- long into the future. In this article, let's evaluate the investment merits of AT&T (NYSE:T), as well as its dividend under this framework. For an in-depth assessment of AT&T's intrinsic value, please click here.
Return on Invested Capital
AT&T's dividend yield is above average, offering a 4.7% 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.
Based on our analysis, we think the safety of AT&T's dividend is very poor (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.
For AT&T, this score is 0.4, revealing that on its current path the firm may not have the capacity to pay out its expected future dividends, though flexibility remains. The beauty of the Dividend Cushion is that it can be compared apples-to-apples across companies. For example, Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) scores a 1.4 on this measure. Also, for firms that have a score below 1 or that have a negative score, the risk of a dividend cut in the future is certainly elevated. In fact, the Valuentum Dividend Cushion caught all dividend cuts in our non-financial coverage universe, except for one, which subsequently raised its dividend above pre-cut levels (meaning it shouldn't have cut it in the first place). The Dividend Cushion also caught the recent cuts by JC Penney (NYSE:JCP)--its score was 0.9--and SuperValu (NYSE:SVU)--its score was -11. Check out our article calling for SuperValu's dividend cut months before it slashed it here. Pretty neat tool, don't you think? We use our dividend cushion as a key decision component in choosing companies for addition to the portfolio of our Dividend Growth Newsletter (please see our links on the left sidebar for more information).
Now on to the potential growth of AT&T'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. As such, 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 AT&T. We rate the firm's future potential dividend growth as very poor due largely to its poor cash-flow capacity relative to future dividends paid (and after considering its net debt/cash position).
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 AT&T's case, we think the shares are fairly valued, so the risk of capital loss medium. If we thought the shares were undervalued, the risk of capital loss would be low.
All things considered, there's just not too much for us to get excited about with AT&T. And we think there are much better dividend risk/reward profiles out there.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.