Can Rio Tinto (LSE: RIO) 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 mining giant Rio Tinto (LSE: RIO) (NYSE: RIO.US).
Does Rio Tinto 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 Rio's cash flow from the last five years:
|Free cash flow ($m)||-34,251||8,702||5,855||16,566||3,192|
|Dividend payments ($m)||1,507||1,933||876||1,754||2,236|
|Free cash flow/dividend*||-22.7||4.5||6.7||9.4||1.4|
*A value of >1 means the dividend was covered by free cash flow
Source: Rio Tinto company reports
A look at these figures shows that something dramatic happened in 2007, resulting in Rio experiencing a vast cash flow shortage. So what was it?
In 2007, Rio spent an eye-watering $38bn buying Alcan, an aluminium producer. The cash flow statement for that year records $39bn in new borrowings, so it's a safe assumption that Alcan was bought with borrowed money. Unfortunately, Rio paid vastly over the odds for Alcan, and has since been forced to write-down the value of the acquisition by many billions of dollars.
In the meantime, it's been forced to repay the $38bn it borrowed to buy Alcan. Perhaps predictably, this proved too much for its battered finances to handle and in 2009, Rio was forced into a $15bn share issue, the proceeds of which were used to repay a big slice of debt.
This story highlights one of the restrictions of only focusing on one metric -- such as free cash flow -- when assessing a company. No one metric can tell the whole story, although a look at Rio's full cash flow statements for the last five years provides most of the clues you need to understand this story.
Is Rio's dividend safe?
On the face of it, Rio has a history of strong free cash flow generation each year, with only 2007 proving an exception. Rio's overpriced Alcan acquisition is a mistake the company probably won't make again, as like most of its peers, it is now focusing far more carefully on managing and justifying major capital expenditure in order to cut costs and boost profits.
Rio Tinto's dividend yield of 2.9% is not bad for a big miner -- BHP Billiton offers 3.2%, while Anglo American offers 2.6% -- and the firm's dividend payments have been well covered by free cash flow over the last four years.
Although Rio's half-year results for 2012 show that its heavy capital expenditure commitments have continued this year, leaving it cash flow negative at the end of June, capital expenditure is set to fall next year, and the company has taken advantage of the current boom in corporate bonds to refinance some of its debt at very low interest rates. Rio also has just over $7bn in cash and cash equivalents, enabling it to smooth over short-term cash flow shortages.
Overall, I think that Rio's dividend looks quite safe at current levels, but I don't expect to see dramatic growth over the next couple of years.
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> Roland owns shares in Rio Tinto but does not own shares in any of the other companies mentioned in this article.