Two months ago, Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW ) CEO Andrew Liveris adamantly vowed that he would not preside over the first dividend cut in the company's 97-year history, declaring: "We will not break that streak. Not Dow. Not on my watch." Perhaps he had his fingers crossed when he said it: Yesterday, the chemical company announced it was slashing its dividend by 64%, to $0.15 per share.
Dow joins a growing list of blue-chip names that have been forced to cut (or virtually eliminate) their dividends, including Pfizer (NYSE: PFE ) , Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , and State Street (NYSE: STT ) -- all of which are part of the elite S&P 500 Dividend Aristocrats (stocks from the index that have been increasing their dividends for at least 25 years consecutively).
It made sense when I said it …
Admittedly, things have changed since Liveris' statement: Kuwait's state oil business pulled out of a joint venture with Dow, taking with it the promise of $7.5 billion in financing. That caused Dow to miss a milestone in its proposed takeover of Rohm & Haas (NYSE: ROH ) .
However, Mr. Liveris was insistent that he wouldn't need the funds from the joint venture to complete the takeover, banking on $4 billion in financing from Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) and the Kuwait Investment Authority, and a further $13 billion in bridge loans. That was all well and good … until the credit rating agencies warned Dow that drawing down the bridge loan would prompt them to downgrade the company's debt rating.
Mr. Liveris really should have known better than to make such a fragile promise in this environment. After all, circumstances are apt to change rapidly and unexpectedly in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Dividend cuts can strike at any time
Dividend investors need to carefully validate any executive's promises to maintain a company's dividend right now. CEOs can be fickle creatures, particularly once they paint themselves into a corner trying to avoid any of several unpalatable options. Will General Electric's (NYSE: GE ) Jeffrey Immelt be the next corporate chieftain to ask for a dish of crow?
Further (far more palatable) Foolishness: