Not all dividends are created equal. Here, we'll do a top-to-bottom analysis of a given company to understand the quality of its dividend and see how that's changed over the past five years.
The company we're looking at today is Airgas (NYSE: ARG ) , which yields 1.8%.
Airgas is a producer of industrial, medical, and specialty gases. The company, along with competitors Fastenal (Nasdaq: FAST ) and MSC Industrial Direct (NYSE: MSM ) , have been doing well -- so well, in fact, that this year Airgas had to fend off a bid from rival Air Products and Chemicals (NYSE: APD ) .
To evaluate the quality of a dividend, the first thing to consider is whether the company has paid a dividend consistently over the past five years, and, if so, how much has it grown.
Airgas' dividend has been steadily rising since 2007.
To understand how safe a dividend is, we use three crucial tools, the first of which is:
- The interest coverage ratio, or the number of times interest is earned, which is calculated by earnings before interest and taxes, divided by interest expense. The interest coverage ratio measures a company's ability to pay the interest on its debt. A ratio less than 1.5 is questionable; a number less than 1 means the company is not bringing in enough money to cover its interest expenses.
Airgas covers every dollar in interest expense with $9 in operating earnings.
The other tools we use to evaluate the safety of a dividend are:
- The EPS payout ratio, or dividends per share divided by earnings per share. The EPS payout ratio measures the percentage of earnings that go toward paying the dividend. A ratio greater than 80% is worrisome.
- The FCF payout ratio, or dividends per share divided by free cash flow per share. Earnings alone don't always paint a complete picture of a business's health. The FCF payout ratio measures the percent of free cash flow devoted toward paying the dividend. Again, a ratio greater than 80% could be a red flag.
Source: S&P Capital IQ.
Until 2010 Airgas' payout ratios had been fairly stable. The earnings payout ratio has remained below 40%.
Another tool for better investing
Most investors don't keep tabs on their companies. That's a mistake. If you take the time to read past the headlines and crack a filing now and then, you're in a much better position to spot potential trouble early. We can help you keep tabs on your companies with My Watchlist, our free, personalized stock-tracking service.
- Add Airgas to My Watchlist.