Mr. Softy's Charity Case

If you've been one of the many complaining about Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) and its tightwad ways, you might want to stick around as the software company fills a pinata with its $56 billion in hoarded cash.

In doubling its regular dividend, launching a $30 billion share buyback, and planning a special one-time distribution of $3 a share, this isn't your old Mr. Softy. No way. We're talking colossal shift here. We're talking Ebenezer Scrooge being transformed into a Gabor sister triplet.

With such an extreme reversal, it's natural to have mixed feelings, too. The move is refreshing. The move is sad.

On the one hand, you have to wink at a software company that has been granted as close a license as one can legally imagine to print money. Even now, in a relative lull, the company is generating so much in cash flow that it will still be cash-rich after its four-year plan and projected $75 billion tab have been paid out. So it certainly won't hurt to see it doll itself up for the growing number of income investors.

But then you have to wonder what Microsoft could have done with that money if it didn't have to be so charitable. Would the company be able to make juicy strategic acquisitions if its buying sprees weren't so carefully monitored and regulated? Would it be granted more operating flexibility if it wasn't seen as a gargantuan global bully? That's why last night's moves are bittersweet. Sure, the distributions and repurchases read well, but this is ultimately a company paying the price for its drop-dead gorgeous balance sheet. That's a case of cash burning in effigy, and it is hardly worth applauding. Mr. Softy had gotten too big for its britches -- and riches.

The one-shot yields aren't new. Since last year, you have seen companies like Iomega (NYSE: IOM  ) , Regal Entertainment (Nasdaq: RGC  ) , and Blockbuster (NYSE: BBI  ) all willing to fork over a chunk of change in a lump-sum distribution. They weren't part of a grander liquidation strategy, even though those bulky payouts have come at times of corporate flux.

That's why it's the $3-per-share one-time event that irks me the most. I like the buyback. If the market isn't buying in the way it used to and the fundamentals are solid -- which they are -- scooping up 10% of the shares outstanding can prove to be contagious. Hiking the dividend, now in a quarterly format? Cool. But why that chunky taxable event? Why give out nearly 10 years of dividends in one fell swoop? I hope the checks don't come with white hankies. I would never want to see Microsoft surrender.

Do you think Microsoft was right in hiking its dividend, announcing the one-time payout, and aggressively buying back its shares? Where does the leading software company go from here? All this and more -- in the Microsoft discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Aristotle Munarriz is a Windows-watcher, but he does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story.


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