Dividend paying stocks like NiSource Inc. (NYSE:NI) tend to be popular with investors, and for good reason – some research suggests a significant amount of all stock market returns come from reinvested dividends. If you are hoping to live on the income from dividends, it’s important to be a lot more stringent with your investments than the average punter.
A 2.7% yield is nothing to get excited about, but investors probably think the long payment history suggests NiSource has some staying power. Some simple analysis can offer a lot of insights when buying a company for its dividend, and we’ll go through this below.
Dividends are usually paid out of company earnings. If a company is paying more than it earns, then the dividend might become unsustainable – hardly an ideal situation. So we need to form a view on if a company’s dividend is sustainable, relative to its net profit after tax. Looking at the data, we can see that 239% of NiSource’s profits were paid out as dividends in the last 12 months. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, from the perspective of an investor who hopes to own the company for many years, a payout ratio of above 100% is definitely a concern.
We also measure dividends paid against a company’s levered free cash flow, to see if enough cash was generated to cover the dividend. Last year, NiSource paid a dividend while reporting negative free cash flow. While there may be an explanation, we think this behaviour is generally not sustainable.
One of the major risks of relying on dividend income, is the potential for a company to struggle financially and cut its dividend. Not only is your income cut, but the value of your investment declines as well – nasty. NiSource has been paying dividends for a long time, but for the purpose of this analysis, we only examine the past 10 years of payments. Its dividend payments have fallen by 20% or more on at least one occasion over the past ten years. During the past ten-year period, the first annual payment was US$0.92 in 2009, compared to US$0.80 last year. This works out to be a decline of approximately 1.4% per year over that time. NiSource’s dividend hasn’t shrunk linearly at 1.4% per annum, but the CAGR is a useful estimate of the historical rate of change.
When a company’s per-share dividend falls we question if this reflects poorly on either external business conditions, or the company’s capital allocation decisions. Either way, we find it hard to get excited about a company with a declining dividend.
Dividend Growth Potential
With a relatively unstable dividend, it’s even more important to see if earnings per share (EPS) are growing. Why take the risk of a dividend getting cut, unless there’s a good chance of bigger dividends in future? NiSource’s earnings per share have shrunk at 14% a year over the past five years. A sharp decline in earnings per share is not great from from a dividend perspective, as even conservative payout ratios can come under pressure if earnings fall far enough.
We’d also point out that NiSource issued a meaningful number of new shares in the past year. Regularly issuing new shares can be detrimental – it’s hard to grow dividends per share when new shares are regularly being created.
To summarise, shareholders should always check that NiSource’s dividends are affordable, that its dividend payments are relatively stable, and that it has decent prospects for growing its earnings and dividend. NiSource paid out almost all of its cash flow and profit as dividends, leaving little to reinvest in the business. Second, earnings per share have been in decline, and its dividend has been cut at least once in the past. In this analysis, NiSource doesn’t shape up too well as a dividend stock. We’d find it hard to look past the flaws, and would not be inclined to think of it as a reliable dividend-payer.
Given that earnings are not growing, the dividend does not look nearly so attractive. See if the 7 analysts are forecasting a turnaround in our free collection of analyst estimates here.
If you are a dividend investor, you might also want to look at our curated list of dividend stocks yielding above 3%.
We aim to bring you long-term focused research analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material.
If you spot an error that warrants correction, please contact the editor at email@example.com. This article by Simply Wall St is general in nature. It does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any stock, and does not take account of your objectives, or your financial situation. Simply Wall St has no position in the stocks mentioned. Thank you for reading.