Are dividends about to be slashed at BHP Billiton plc, J Sainsbury plc and TalkTalk Telecom Group plc?

Mining giant BHP Billiton (LSE: BLT) resisted as long as possible but in February finally did the unimaginable and cut its dividend for the first time in 15 years. While this move wasn’t popular with some investors, the shift from a progressive payout to one based on a minimum of 50% of underlying profits was necessary to maintain balance sheet strength. BHP was right to focus on fixing the balance sheet as year-end net debt of $24.4bn represented a gearing ratio of 25.7%, up from 22.4% a year earlier.

Dividends in the future will be reliant on the company’s underlying business turning around. But, despite being one of the healthiest miners around, analysts are expecting earnings to fall 88% when full-year results are announced in August. This would mean dividends of a little under 25p per share for the year and a 3% yield. And with slowing Chinese demand, the year-do-date rally in commodities faltering and a $44bn lawsuit filed due to the Brazilian dam disaster, analysts are expecting dividends to fall next year as well.

Increasing competition

Year end results from Sainsbury (LSE: SBRY) saw dividends fall 23% at the UK’s second largest grocer. Analysts aren’t expecting this to change any time soon and are forecasting at least two more years of lower shareholder payments. This is hardly a surprise as profits fall thanks to increased competition from traditional rivals, plus German low-price chains and now online-only outfits such as Amazon.

The £1.4bn purchase of Argos parent Home Retail Group will also be unlikely to help dividends much. Over the past two years the company has only paid out £29m and £25.3m annually, including the cash flow from now-sold Homebase.

These low payouts combined with restructuring charges and paying for the acquisition won’t do much to move the needle for Sainsbury, which paid out £330m in dividends over the past year. And with profits falling at both Sainsbury and Argos, the company’s policy of returning half of underlying earnings to shareholders will result in lower dividends next year as well. Unless the tie-up with Argos goes well or grocery price wars relent, I wouldn’t expect dividends to jump soon at Sainsbury’s.

Good news ahead

Telecoms specialist TalkTalk (LSE: TALK) has finally given income investors some good news with three years of uncovered dividends possibly coming to a close. Management has stuck with its progressive dividend payout despite falling profits, but analysts are expecting earnings to finally cover the dividend in the 2017/18 fiscal year. This will be music to the ears of investors dismayed by last year’s expensive hacking scandal.

Rising earnings will also be of major assistance to the company’s $679m net debt, which was 2.6 times EBITDA. Overall, the company’s investment in rolling out quad-play mobile, TV, broadband and landline offerings is beginning to bear fruit. Despite the tumult after the hacking, revenue rose 2% over the full year and customer churn dropped to its lowest ever levels in the past quarter. While dividends don’t look to be in any danger in the short term, TalkTalk trades in a very competitive sector and is at a disadvantage given its small size.

We have reason to question future dividend growth at each of these three companies, which should make risk-averse income investors extra cautious. Luckily, the Motley Fool has detailed one company that has raised shareholders returns 380% over the past few years in our latest free report, A Top Income Share.

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Ian Pierce has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of and has recommended We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.