Apple and the value of paying a dividend

Yesterday, the most important news was the fact that Apple announced to start paying a dividend and additionallyto buy back shares in an amount of up to 10 bn USD.

Contrary to many news stories, the announced dividend plus the share repurchase program will not lower the 100 bn USD cash pile as the free cash flow of Apple is currently way above the amounts they plan to distribute.

Nevertheless the Apple shares gained above the market gains yesterday, so the news was received positive by investors (good collection of stories here at Abormal Returns)

Let’s have a quick look at the theory of how to value such annoncements in general.

Efficient market

In a truly efficient market, a decision to distribute a dividend would not matter at all. Every investor would value the company purely based on free cashflows at company level, adjust correctly for any retained cash on the balance sheet and being indifferent if the money is distributed or not.

Potential positive impacts:

In many articles about the Apple price move, commentators mentioned the following reasons why paying (or increasing) a dividend should be positive for shareholders

a) Management shows more confidence in future cash flow generation
b) Management has less money to spend on (stupid) acquisitions, especially for former high growth companies (see e.g. HP)
c) Investors have a preference for current income
d) Unadjusted P/Es go down for cash rich companies, which then leads to a further increase in stock prices

Negative impacts

e) Dividends get taxed at the level of the shareholder
f) management has run out of growth options, paying a dividend signals “peak growth”

In the conference call, Tim Cook started the call with emphasizing the potential growth opportunities of Apple, clearly targeting point f) in the list above.

Personally, I think with especially with Apple c) and d) does not apply either. No one is buying Apple now because of the dividend and everyone knows the amount of the cash pile. I think argument b) could have some merit, especially when you look at HP when Leo Apotheker took over and directly overspent on an acquisition.

However, as I do not own Apple and don’t want to buy or short it for the time being either, I wanted to focus on some general aspects of dividend payouts.

Well managed companies (Compounders, steady growers)

For a well managed company with significant growth opportunities which is managed on a long term basis, I couldn’t care less about dividend payouts. Soo in my opnion, for really well managed companies with growth potential, the “efficient market” thesis holds

Indebted companies

Companies, which are for some reasons relatively heavily indebted but have a solid business model, should in most cases not start to pay dividends before they have significantly reduced their debt burden. Paying back debt and reducing cost of capital can be in many cases much more value enhancing than starting to pay dividends too early. So in suchh cases, an increase in dividend could be a bad sign.

Badly managed but cheap companies

Here the case is clear: As long as the cash stays on the balance sheet of a badly managed company, there is always the risk that the cash could dissapear any time, either through stupid acquisitions, over-investment or even fraud (Chinese RTOs anyone ?). In such cases, the announcement to pay significant dividends out of retained cash would definitely be value enhancing by reducing implicit risk.

Declining companies

The best documented example of a declining company is WB’s very own Berkshire Hathaway. This was the classic case of a company which would have kept investing in its declining business until they would have been bankrupt. In such cases, the commitment of paying out or maintaining large dividends instead of reinvesting is definitely a plus.

Announcement of Dividends vs. buy backs

In my very simple view, the announcement of a dividend and a stock buy back are very different. Whereas for the dividends, any non-payment would be highly difficult, buy backs often get announced but only partially executed. Additionally, a buy back is always a one time item whereas a dividend implcitly assumes a certain continuity in payments. So I would put much more weight on dividend announcements than stock buy back announcements.

In some case, one will really have to look deeply into companies to judge if a dividend announcement is positive or not. For instance if a higly indebted shrinking company increases its divdends, is this good or bad ? Or if a highly indebted company shrinking stops paying dividends to pay off debt, what is the net result of this ?

Nevertheless I want to summarize the impact of dividend and stock buy back announcements as follows:

Announcements of increased dividends and/or stock buy backys are most value enhancing for

+ badly managed companies with high a cash pile
+ shrinking companies with high free cash flows and a relatively low debt burden

For well managed and growing company, such announcements should not impact the value significantly.

Especially if analyzing “cheap” and “contrarian” companies, one could use the payout ratio also as an indicator for the required return on capital. A higher payout ratio should lead to a lower required ROC and vice versa.

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