Today we’ll take a closer look at ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP) from a dividend investor’s perspective. Owning a strong business and reinvesting the dividends is widely seen as an attractive way of growing your wealth. If you are hoping to live on your dividends, it’s important to be more stringent with your investments than the average punter. Regular readers know we like to apply the same approach to each dividend stock, and we hope you’ll find our analysis useful.
A high yield and a long history of paying dividends is an appealing combination for ConocoPhillips. We’d guess that plenty of investors have purchased it for the income. The company also bought back stock during the year, equivalent to approximately 6.1% of the company’s market capitalisation at the time. There are a few simple ways to reduce the risks of buying ConocoPhillips for its dividend, and we’ll go through these 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. Comparing dividend payments to a company’s net profit after tax is a simple way of reality-checking whether a dividend is sustainable. In the last year, ConocoPhillips paid out 74% of its profit as dividends. This is a fairly normal payout ratio among most businesses. It allows a higher dividend to be paid to shareholders, but does limit the capital retained in the business – which could be good or bad.
We also measure dividends paid against a company’s levered free cash flow, to see if enough cash was generated to cover the dividend. ConocoPhillips paid out 96% of its free cash flow last year, suggesting the dividend is poorly covered by cash flow. While ConocoPhillips’ dividends were covered by the company’s reported profits, free cash flow is somewhat more important, so it’s not great to see that the company didn’t generate enough cash to pay its dividend. Cash is king, as they say, and were ConocoPhillips to repeatedly pay dividends that aren’t well covered by cashflow, we would consider this a warning sign.
Remember, you can always get a snapshot of ConocoPhillips’ latest financial position, by checking our visualisation of its financial health.
From the perspective of an income investor who wants to earn dividends for many years, there is not much point buying a stock if its dividend is regularly cut or is not reliable. ConocoPhillips has been paying dividends for a long time, but for the purpose of this analysis, we only examine the past 10 years of payments. This dividend has been unstable, which we define as having been cut one or more times over this time. During the past 10-year period, the first annual payment was US$2.0 in 2010, compared to US$1.7 last year. The dividend has shrunk at around 1.7% a year during that period. ConocoPhillips’ dividend has been cut sharply at least once, so it hasn’t fallen by 1.7% every year, but this is a decent approximation of the long term change.
A shrinking dividend over a 10-year period is not ideal, and we’d be concerned about investing in a dividend stock that lacks a solid record of growing dividends per share.
Dividend Growth Potential
Given that the dividend has been cut in the past, we need to check if earnings are growing and if that might lead to stronger dividends in the future. Over the past five years, it looks as though ConocoPhillips’ EPS have declined at around 15% a year. 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.
To summarise, shareholders should always check that ConocoPhillips’ dividends are affordable, that its dividend payments are relatively stable, and that it has decent prospects for growing its earnings and dividend. ConocoPhillips gets a pass on its dividend payout ratio, but it paid out virtually all of its cash flow as dividends. This may just be a one-off, but we’d keep an eye on this. Earnings per share have been falling, and the company has cut its dividend at least once in the past. From a dividend perspective, this is a cause for concern. There are a few too many issues for us to get comfortable with ConocoPhillips from a dividend perspective. Businesses can change, but we would struggle to identify why an investor should rely on this stock for their income.
Companies possessing a stable dividend policy will likely enjoy greater investor interest than those suffering from a more inconsistent approach. Meanwhile, despite the importance of dividend payments, they are not the only factors our readers should know when assessing a company. Taking the debate a bit further, we’ve identified 4 warning signs for ConocoPhillips that investors need to be conscious of moving forward.
If you are a dividend investor, you might also want to look at our curated list of dividend stocks yielding above 3%.
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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. We aim to bring you long-term focused analysis driven by fundamental data. Note that our analysis may not factor in the latest price-sensitive company announcements or qualitative material. Simply Wall St has no position in any stocks mentioned.
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