Friday, October 15, 2010

From Free Cash Flow to Willingness to Pay Shareholders

A while back, I wrote this post about stocks that have good record of free cash flow and naturally they also gave a lot of dividends. I thought I would just delve a bit deeper into how free cash flow affects dividend while also looking at 1 or 2 other factors.

Basically, to determine whether a company can consistently pay dividends and grow them, we need to know:

1. The firm's balance sheet, esp the size of its debt
2. The firm’s ability to generate good cashflow or even grow it
3. The top management’s willingness in actually paying dividends
4. If it actually gets paid out, what is the yield?

The first thing I usually look at would be the firm’s long term track record in generating free cash flow, which is operating cashflow minus capex, ie the cashflow that is left after deducting money invested in new equipment, new plants etc. The thinking is that the remaining cashflow can be used to pay down debt or pay out dividend. If the firm has no debt (that’s why Criteria 1 is there), then the money should logically flow into dividends.

On the same post, I only managed to screen out 30-40 companies that have consistently generated positive free cashflow. This is out of 700 listed companies in Singapore. This shows how difficult it is to actually produce enough cash to give out dividends.

However, even if the firm can generate cash, if the management is not willing to pay them out, then there is no point talking about it. To check this, we look at the dividend track record. If the firm consistently paid dividends or even increased dividends, then we are going somewhere.

An interesting case in point would be Yeo Hiap Seng (YHS). The free cash flow track record is stellar but it stopped paying dividends since 2006. It looked like they over-invested in the earlier part of this decade and is now using the free cashflow to pay down debt. But what is the management’s stance on dividends? Will they resume it after the debt issue is resolved? Or are they gonna invest into stupid ventures again?

Let’s look at the previous case study: Starhub. The operating cashflow on average is about S$600mn. The capex is about S$200mn. So FCF is close to S$400mn. The firm has been paying around S$300mn in dividend every year. So that’s very good! There is still S$100mn of buffer for it to grow its dividend.

However there is always the lingering debt issue. Starhub has roughly S$600mn of net debt, and equity in the latest quarter is a miserable S$60mn! This explanation on Drizzt’s blog explains that it’s due to some accounting after they merged SCV. The actual equity is S$1bn. So S$600mn of debt is no big deal. Not to mention, if the S$400mn of FCF is used to pay debt, it will take only 1.5 yrs to clear it.

But still it doesn’t make sense. Why does merging with SCV reduce accounting equity by 90%? Was SCV a negative equity entity? Even if there is no actual impact on every day operations, the book value is something that all investors look at. Can something be done to resolve this?

Well, perhaps it would be resolve in time. Meanwhile Starhub gives close to 8% dividend yield.

Which brings us to the last point: the dividend yield. Is it a reasonable yield? For every dollar buying the stock, are you getting enough back in dividends? But the yield is also a function of future growth expectations. A high yield usually means lower growth expectations.

Starhub’s yield of 8% can mean that there is very limited growth left. Or it can mean that investors expect the yield to fall in the future, ie dividend cut. Or it can really be a steal right now, and over time, the stock rises to $5 and makes the yield more reasonable at 4-5%. Which means you will double your money by buying now.

If you ask me, I think the former reasons look more likely. The market is not stupid, bargains like this don’t last long enough for an amateur blogger like me to blog about it. Not to mention that I am definitely not the first one blogging about it.

The best investment, obviously, is a high yield stock that can sustain or even grow its dividend over time. But high yield with growth is an oxymoron. If the firm can grow, it will keep the cash for growth instead of paying it out to shareholders. High dividend yield and growth cannot go hand-in-hand. But for some value investors, the goal might just be to find 1 or 2 of these high yield growth stocks, buy them and hold forever!
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