Can Diageo (LSE: DGE) afford its dividend payments, or is a dividend cut likely?
Many investors focus on earnings per share when judging a company's performance. However, earnings can be manipulated and adjusted in all sorts of ways, meaning they don't tell you a lot about how much spare cash a company has generated. Similarly, since dividend cover is calculated using earnings, a good level of dividend cover doesn't necessarily mean the payout is actually being funded from a company's profits.
A company's cash flow can tell you a lot about a firm's financial health. Is the company burning up its cash reserves on interest payments and operating expenses, or does it generate spare cash that can fund dividends or be retained for future investment? If a dividend isn't funded by cash flow, then there is a greater chance the payout will become unaffordable and be cut, which is bad news for shareholders like you and me.
In this series, I'm going to take a look at the cash flow statements of some of the biggest names in the FTSE 100 (UKX), to see whether their dividends are being funded in a sustainable way, from genuine spare cash. Today, I'm looking at Diageo (LSE: DGE) (NYSE: DEO.US), the owner of drinks brands such as Guinness, Johnnie Walker and Smirnoff.
165% in 10 years
Diageo's share price has risen by 165% over the last decade, as the company has delivered relentless growth through acquisitions and organic expansion. As a result, it trades on a fairly heady price to earnings ratio of 23.5 and offers a dividend yield of just 2.4%. However, Diageo has grown its dividend at an average rate of 5.9% per year over the last five years, which, when combined with its impressive share price growth, means that anyone who bought Diageo shares five years ago, when they traded around 1,080p, will have enjoyed a dividend yield on cost of 4.0% this year -- plus a 75% capital gain to date.
Diageo's apparently divine progress was checked slightly this week when it was forced to admit failure in its efforts to take over the Cuervo tequila brand, which it currently distributes and which was seen as a natural deal for the firm. However, shareholders -- especially income investors -- should probably applaud Diageo for refusing to overpay and preserving its cash for a more fairly-priced purchase. It's still possible that a deal will happen in the future, as Cuervo will have no distribution deal outside Mexico once its current deal with Diageo ends in June 2013. There is also a possibility that Diageo could set its sights on Beam Inc instead, which owns the world's second-biggest tequila brand and some attractive whisky brands, too.
Well-judged acquisitions have fuelled Diageo's growth, but have they left it short of free cash flow for dividends, or has the company's management found an ideal balance?
Does Diageo have enough cash?
As private investors, we want to back businesses that are able to pay their dividends out of free cash flow each year. I define free cash flow as the cash that's left over after capital expenditure, interest payments and tax deductions. With that in mind, let's look at Diageo's cash flow from the last five years:
|Free cash flow (£m)||681||1,103||1,819||1,749||278|
|Dividend payments (£m)||857||870||914||973||1,036|
|Free cash flow/dividend*||0.8||1.3||2.0||1.8||0.3|
*A value of >1 means the dividend was covered by free cash flow
Source: Diageo company reports
Is Diageo's dividend safe?
Over the last five years, Diageo's dividend payments have been covered by free cash flow an average of 1.2 times. Like most companies, its free cash flow fluctuates from year to year, but this positive average suggests that the firm is getting the balance right and can afford both its dividend payments and its acquisitive habits.
Diageo has a strong history of dividend growth and its payout has risen every year since 1999, during which time the dividend has grown by 123% -- well above inflation and most people's salary growth. The trend looks likely to continue this year -- brokers are pencilling in a forecast total dividend of 46.8p for 2013, which would represent a 7.6% increase on 2012.
In conclusion, I think that Diageo's dividend payout looks pretty safe and I expect it to continue to match or beat inflation over the next few years.
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> Roland does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.