**This is a guest post by Kelvin Seetoh, you can visit his website: https://Kelvestor.com if you like to read more of his article**
With our banks interest rate and Singapore Government bonds yielding less than 3%, there are investors sought out for higher returns in listed businesses offering a higher dividend yield. Using InvestmentMoats’ Dividend Screener tool, you will see a whole lot of companies offering a reasonable amount of yield (4-9%).
For example, Starhub (telco) has a yield of approx. 7-8%, while VICOM (car inspection center) has a yield of approx. 6%. For most retirees, they would love to park their assets into such dividend paying company to yield them a sustainable income stream to support their expenditures. It would be important to know whether the dividends are sustainable. Any retiree who projected their dividend yield to 6% does not want to wake up to a rude shock of a company cutting its dividends, thereby reducing the effective dividend yield to a much lower percentage. Even for my group of investors, most of them would not enjoy seeing a dividend cut or discontinuation of dividends.
A high dividend yield company may have seemed attractive, but we will explore the sustainability of it together. Here are some ways to determine sustainability:
- Consistency and pay-out ratio
- Availability of free cash flow
I use this website called Dividends.sg as a quick gauge. Looking at Starhub’s dividends, it had been consistent from 2010 to 2016. However, in 2017, the quarterly dividends were cut from 5 cents to 4 cents – a 20% reduction. We will find out why later.
(screen grab from Dividends.sg on 26 May 2018)
Even for a seeming stable business such as SingPost, the dividends are not stable. You can see its quarterly dividends had been reduced over the years.
(screen grab from Dividends.sg on 26 May 2018)
So, what can we rely on?
First, we must understand that business conditions are dynamic. Occasionally, different cycles will cause earnings to fluctuate up or down and it affects the business’ ability to pay out dividends. As an investor, we must never have the expectations for dividends to remain the same forever.
Second, create a buffer for your dividends expectations. If an investor needs 4% dividend yield for his lifestyle, then perhaps, it would be conservative to find companies with at least 6% dividend yield and a reasonable payout ratio (below 80%). In tough times, companies may cut their dividends, but you are still fine.
To do a simple calculation… if I need $120k yearly for my expenses. I will take $120k divided by 0.04, this tells me that I need $3 million for my portfolio.
For simplicity, we will use the payout ratio to determine the sustainability of it. The pay-out ratio formula is dividends per share divided by earnings per share. We are trying to understand the portion of the company’s earnings is used to pay dividends.
Using VICOM’s historical record as an example:
|Dividends Per Share (cents)||22.5||27||28.5||26.5||36|
|Earnings Per Share (cents)||32.17||34.04||35.45||31.77||29.90|
You will notice the dividend declared for FY2017 was 120.4% of its earnings per share which may not be sustainable. A historical payout ratio of 80% seems more reasonable.
If I am seeking for a 5% yield from VICOM, here is how I would compute it. Taking the FY2017 earnings per share of $0.299, multiply it by 80%, the estimated dividends per share is $0.2392. If the required yield is 5%, so we will take $0.2392 dividend by 0.05 or 5%, which gives us the share price of $4.78. But if I am seeking for 4% yield, I will take $0.2392 divide by 0.04 or 4%, which gives us a target share price of $5.98.
An extra note is as of FY2017, VICOM’s balance sheet has a cash per share of $1.21 which allows VICOM continue paying 3 to 4 years of dividends even when there are no revenues. You can take $1.21 divided by $0.2392. This is a very strong sign of balance sheet strength and dividend-paying abilities.
Using Starhub as another example:
|Dividends Per Share (cents)||20||20||20||20||17|
|Earnings Per Share (cents)||22.0||21.4||21.4||19.7||14.1|
Since 2013, You could see that Starhub is very close to paying 100% of its earnings out as dividends. It is increasingly being stretched to beyond 100% in both FY2016 and FY2017. In fact, you will see that Starhub has a net debt per share of $0.36 which is not a good sign for a dividend paying company.
Let us assume that $0.16 is the new norm for Starhub’s yearly dividend yield. Taking a $0.16 dividend by $2.08 (26 May 2018 price), an investor would get a yield of 7.7%. It is way more than VICOM’s. However, we must be conservative where we question ourselves: is $0.16 dividends sustainable at all? Just imagine if it is being cut down further to $0.12 per year? The new yield would be 5.7% instead.
Let us look at the recent results of both companies:
For Starhub, the net profit after tax dropped by 13%. It will weaken the company’s ability to pay dividends.
For VICOM, nothing fanciful but the profit grew by 2.5%.
Given a choice, I would stick to VICOM business because the business is more stable and cash rich. I assure myself of the likelihood that the dividends are sustainable.
Availability of Free Cash Flow
The net profit after tax earnings are known as accounting earnings. Under a transaction where I sell 100kg of Apple to Wal-Mart, it is unlikely that I will receive cash-on-delivery as they would likely take some days to pay me. Can a company pay dividends when money is not received yet? The answer is no.
Therefore, we must focus on the cash flow when it comes to dividends. The dividends must be paid from cash received. Likewise, we must know that dividends are paid out of free cash flow (FCF). FCF allows a company to (1) pay down debt (2) buy-back shares (3) reinvest in operations or (4) perform strategic M&A activities.
Free cash flow (FCF) is simply “cash flow from operations MINUS capex”
For FY2017 ended, Starhub generated S$ 517.2mil of cash flows. Deducting S$295.9mil of capex, S$221.3m of free cash flow is available. However, as we look lower, we realised that the dividends paid was 293.9mil. There was a shortfall of S$72.9mil. How did Starhub managed to pay the extra dividend? They took issued perpetual capital securities of S$199.6mil to meet the shortfall.
It tells me that the dividends are not sustainable because it is funded by debt. If a business borrows debt to pay dividends, it is not a good sign. The ideal scenario is where a business pays dividends out of operations.
- When an investor chase for the yield without consideration about the sustainability of dividends, he/she might suffer from capital losses. Despite receiving the yield, the capital losses will cause net losses for the shareholder. While providing a good yield of 5-7%, Starhub’s share price corrected almost 25% since the start of 2018. An investor is still losing money.
- Focus on sustainable pay-out ratio, stable businesses, and the availability of free cash flow.
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